Today, it is considered a mark of pedigree to claim an ancestor who "came over on the Mayflower." But some descendants of the Pilgrims may have forgotten that their ancestors were the original "boat people"--refugees who fled their homeland in fear of losing their lives because of their beliefs. They established a precedent for generations of immigrants who created a society that today stands as a beacon of freedom and ethnic diversity for people around the world.
This is the spirit in which the Los Angeles City Council approved a resolution that affirms the traditional American ideal of providing refuge for those who fear persecution in their native lands. This ideal applies just as much to a Lithuanian sailor trying to jump ship in a U.S. harbor as it does to Central Americans fleeing repressive regimes of both the right and left wing. In El Salvador, for example, an estimated 30,000 civilians have lost their lives since 1980 at the hands of government agents. No wonder there is a climate of fear compelling so many Salvadorans to go north.
Ever since the council approved this historic statement, there has been a climate of escalating rhetoric that has done nothing to promote a better understanding of its meaning, and in fact has created an atmosphere of fear and resentment among the people of our city.
In brief, the resolution opposes the deportation of known law-abiding political refugees, acknowledges the humanitarian work of private social service and religious institutions who have provided leadership on this issue, and makes it easier for political refugees to report crimes to the police without fear of deportation. Everyone in our city, regardless of citizenship status, will benefit from a reduced number of unsolved cases if refugees are less afraid to contact the police when they are victims or witnesses to a crime.
The resolution also states quite clearly that immigration and refugee policy is a federal matter. It admonishes city employees to comply with federal law while continuing to deliver vital city services to people regardless of their legal status. The resolution specifically states that it does not encourage city employees to violate the law or to interfere with federal enforcement.
It does not disagree with the Federal Refugee Act of 1980, but actually reaffirms the definition of political refugee and urges Washington to implement that law in the spirit in which it was created. The resolution does not open up Los Angeles to a flood of immigrants; it specifically applies to political refugees, not economic refugees seeking jobs--just as the Refugee Act itself states. And it does not provide refugees with any special immunity from the law. In fact, it reaffirms existing Los Angeles Police Department policy to detain and turn over to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, undocumented aliens who have been booked for criminal activities.
Those critics who dismiss the council's action as merely symbolic overlook the importance of council resolutions in helping to shape public opinion and influence other levels of government. The council passes resolutions daily urging the state and federal governments to take actions that may be contrary to existing policy.
And those critics who use alarmist rhetoric to say that this resolution will open the floodgates for illegal immigration don't realize that the thrust of the sanctuary proposal is to address the problems of the thousands of political refugees who are in our midst today, living, working and raising families beside the rest of us.
As my colleague Zev Yaroslavsky pointed out so eloquently last week as he read off the ethnic-sounding names of our fellow council members, very few of us would be here today were it not for America's long-standing tradition of providing refuge for political, social and religious outcasts.
It pains me to think that the fate of the Central American refugees will be the same as the fate of the thousands of Jews in the 1930s and '40s who were denied entry into several democratic nations--including the United States--as they desperately sought to escape certain death under Nazism. We have learned from those experiences, and the vow of "never again" should apply today in this case as well.
What the City Council did last week was a rational and compassionate response to a desperate situation. Over time, all of us will realize that we did not challenge the system, but reaffirmed the humane values upon which our country was founded.