Town Declares Itself a Sanctuary for Illegal Immigrants

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The past few days have seen protests around the country in opposition to proposed federal immigration legislation. Renee Montagne speaks with Felipe Aguirre, the vice mayor of one Southern California town that has declared itself a sanctuary for illegal immigrants.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

One small city down the freeway from Los Angeles has fashioned itself a haven for illegal immigrants. Maywood, California, official population just under 30,000; unofficial population, 45,000. That last number includes the undocumented residents living there.

Now the City Council has declared Maywood to be a sanctuary city, where immigrants are welcome and protected whether they have documents or not. And it's passed a resolution against a bill approved by the U.S. House that would make illegal immigration a felony.

Mayor FELIPE AGUIRRE (Vice-Mayor of Maywood, California): If a person is considered a felon under the law, the police have the obligation to go out there and arrest them. And this would mean we'd have to probably arrest, you know, thousands of the residents of the city of Maywood. So, our little city jail would be full of half of the city's population.

MONTAGNE: That's Felipe Aguirre, City Councilman and Vice-Mayor of Maywood. The city's controversial stance has drawn wide criticism, including from within the city. The population there is 96 percent Latino, but Maywood hasn't always been immigrant-friendly.

A traffic debate actually kicked off the pro-immigration movement. Many complained that DUI checkpoints in the city were, in fact, largely nabbing illegal immigrants who were not drinking, but rather driving without a license.

Mayor AGUIRRE: Cars were being seized, and they were being taken from the owners and kept for 30-days. And when a person had to get his car out from the impound, they had to pay a fine and storage of about two thousand, three thousand dollars. You know, if the people were being stopped purely for that reason of DUI status, I had no problem with it. But this is really excessive.

When we talk about undocumented immigrants, they are not isolated from the rest of the community. They are part of the community, because we can define it a family unit: you have a citizen, you have a resident, and you have one or two members of the family that are undocumented. So, we look at the family unit as a whole, and whatever affects one part of the family affects the entire family.

MONTAGNE: Back in the early ‘90's, when Californians passed a statewide proposition known as 187 restricting services to illegal immigrants, many Latinos voted for it, as it turns out. The idea being that they had done it the right way, got their papers, were a generation ahead, and that they were now, some of them, their livelihoods were being threatened by undocumented newcomers.

Mayor AGUIRRE: No, I know that, and it's the same thing, it's the same theory and debate that we've had in the Latino community. That's why a large number of Latino youth voted for Schwarzenegger. People that are in favor of restricting immigration, a lot are Latinos, but I think that, not the majority.

MONTAGNE: So you, though, do have in your own community, Latinos who come up to you and say, Councilman Aguirre, you're doing the wrong thing.

Mayor AGUIRRE: Yes, that' true.

MONTAGNE: We're going to be overwhelmed by, you open your arms, we're going to be overwhelmed by undocumented workers.

Mayor AGUIRRE: Well, yeah, that's a, I hear that comment from all kinds of people. But I think that's really a misperception, because wake up and smell the coffee. We have a lot of Latino immigrants living in our city. We're not going to be overwhelmed. We're not going to be overrun. We're not going to be…it's not like we opened the doors to the city and everybody walks in, you know?

We're saying that the city is changing its policies to be more reflective of the population. To be more reflective of a gentler, kinder community; this is basically what we want to do. Immigrants are welcome in our city. We want immigrants to set up businesses, and everybody has to do that in the legal way. And we want everybody to follow the laws here in our city.

But there's a difference in the way our government is dealing with the immigrant population. And if that's, causes a tension, well, so be it.

MONTAGNE: Councilman Felipe Aguirre is Vice-Mayor and City Councilman of Maywood, which has declared itself a sanctuary city for undocumented workers.

Thank you very much for talking with us.

Mayor AGUIRRE: You're welcome, Renee.

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