Escondido—Escondido became the first California city to ban renting property to illegal immigrants on Wednesday, bringing to a head months of divisive arguments in the community, and possibly setting the city up for a protracted legal battle.
At the end of a contentious, late-night meeting, the measure passed by a margin of 3-2, with Council members Ed Gallo, Sam Abed and Marie Waldron—who proposed the ban—in support. Mayor Lori Holt Pfeiler and Councilman Ron Newman voted against it.
Despite hearing two hours of often-emotional public testimony pleading both sides of the issue, the outcome of the vote was never in question, as Gallo, Waldron and Abed had regularly made public comments in support of the law.
Waldron argued that the ordinance was needed to counter what she called a lack of initiative to address illegal immigration at the federal level, and that the country’s sovereignty was under attack by a wave of illegal immigrants.
“If there was ever a time more important to stand up for our sovereignty, our nation and community, this is it,” Waldron said.
In passing the ban, Escondido became the sixth city in the country to adopt local legislation penalizing landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.
The ordinance must come back to the council on Oct. 18 for a second vote before it can be enacted 30 days later.
Several civil rights groups have already promised to challenge the ban in court, something that could delay its enactment.
The law was proposed as a way of addressing residential overcrowding in the city. And in explaining the motives behind their votes, the council majority often referred to a city-commissioned study of the Mission Park neighborhood downtown. That study found that roughly 80 percent of the 16,000 residents in the area were foreign-born, mostly from Mexico, and often lived in overcrowded conditions.
“Illegals are willing to live in horrible conditions,” Gallo said, citing problems with health and safety of overcrowded units. “This leads to a lot of other issues.”
Newman and Pfeiler said they recognized immigration was a popular issue, resulting from mounting frustration with federal enforcement. But they said the ordinance would do little to actually resolve those issues, since it is based on federal verification of documents.
“We’re telling you we’re going to do something, and in reality, we’re not,” Newman said.
He also said Waldron’s attempt to address immigration at the local level was simply based on discrimination.
“To suggest that this ordinance is something other than going after Latinos and Mexicans in our community is really false,” Newman said. “That’s clearly what it’s about.”
The controversial proposal drew crowds that filled council chambers and overflowed into the courtyard in front of City Hall, where TVs broadcasting the meeting were set up.
Demonstrators from both sides spent the hours before the meeting rallying outside, chanting slogans in support or in opposition to the law.
To handle the crowds, dozens of officers patrolled the civic center area, including representatives from at least a half-dozen other county law enforcement agencies. And only individuals holding one of 200 tickets handed out before the meeting were allowed inside. Everyone who entered the building had to pass through metal detectors.
The council’s discussion also generated a storm of media attention, with news outlets from around Southern California covering what for most weeks is a sleepy, mundane meeting.
Under the rental ban, the city would only take action after a complaint is filed with the city’s business license division by a resident, official or business owner. Complaints would have to describe the alleged violators. However any complaint based primarily on a person’s race, ethnicity or national origin would be discarded.
Complaints deemed valid would be investigated by the city, and landlords would be required to submit identification documents for the tenants in question. The city would verify the documents with federal immigration agencies.
If the renters are found to be in the country illegally, landlords would be required to remove the tenants within 10 business days, or have their business license suspended, meaning they could not legally collect rent or lease their property. Landlords who repeatedly violate the ban would face misdemeanor charges, which carry penalties of up to $1,000 and/or six months in jail.
Civil rights groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union and Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund, have promised to take the city to court to prevent the ban from taking effect. They say the law is unconstitutional and would violate federal fair housing laws.
Many speakers said the law was necessary to counter what they called federal inaction on illegal immigration.
“One by one, American cities are going to be doing the same,” said Claudia Spencer. “And one by one, Americans are going to be getting their cities back.”
That trend began earlier this summer.
Escondido’s ordinance was modeled after a similar measure in Hazleton, Pa., which in July became the first American city to adopt its own immigration law.
Since then other cities in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Missouri have passed their own ordinances.
Those who argued Wednesday in favor of the Escondido ban said that it was necessary to stem a roaring tide of illegal immigration into the region, and that it would improve the quality of life for legal residents of Escondido.
Those opposing the measure called it an embarrassment for the city and said it would unfairly target Latinos. They warned that the rental ban would be detrimental for Escondido’s community, its businesses and its image.
About 42 percent of the city’s 140,000 residents are Latino, according to the San Diego Association of Governments.