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Welcome to Maywood, Where Roads Open Up for Immigrants

THE NATION

The mostly Latino city's council wants it to be a sanctuary. Some warn about `testing the limits.'

March 21, 2006|Hector Becerra | Times Staff Writer

In many cities that might have been seen as normal, even expected. But in a city where so many residents were undocumented, the practice was controversial.

Aguirre, who runs immigration service center Comite Pro-Uno, became a major critic of the city. Activist groups and the St. Rose of Lima Church joined him in the fight.

Together they led opposition to the towing, saying that the city's real motive was to raise money on the backs of its large illegal immigrant population.

"People felt like they were being persecuted," said Father David Velazquez of St. Rose. "Hundreds of cars were being taken away."

A coalition formed that essentially supported a slate of candidates, including Aguirre. They won in the November election, in which the city's treatment of immigrants was a major issue.

"They said, 'Sam is anti-immigrant, he's not with our people,' " Pena said. "My parents are immigrants.... So I sympathize."

The election had a record turnout: more than 3,500 out of 5,800 registered voters.

After taking office at the end of last year, the new council quickly dismantled the city's traffic department. They stopped towing. They allowed people without driver's licenses -- mostly undocumented workers -- to get permits for overnight parking.

The council also rescinded a law that prohibited residents from erecting shade canopies at their homes. The law, passed by the old council, was seen as a slap at undocumented residents who used the canopies to create more usable living space.

The actions have been met with cheers by some of the city's illegal immigrants.

Martha Montiel lives with five family members in a two-bedroom dwelling after moving from Mexico three years ago. Her family members have twice seen their cars impounded because they didn't have licenses. Once, they lost a car because a police officer pulled them over for having a large air freshener hanging in a window. Each time, it cost $1,800 to get the car back -- a sum that took weeks to raise.

Montiel is pleased that the city is trying to help illegal immigrants. "It's good because people try to drive respectfully, even if they don't have licenses," Montiel said as she gathered jugs of water from a Maywood shop.

Montiel, who works at a clothing factory, said she is so grateful for the City Council's action that she plans to put the freshener back in her car.

But other residents are worried about the direction Maywood is taking -- and where it might end up.

"If you don't have a driver's license, you shouldn't drive," said Enrique Curiel, 51, who has picketed against the church's involvement in the matter.

But Maywood's actions are being closely followed by others, including predominantly Latino immigrant communities. Several -- including Pomona, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens -- followed Maywood's lead by opposing a bill in Congress that would make it a crime for organizations or agencies to assist illegal immigrants. Aguirre and the council majority vowed to defy the rules if they become federal law.

"My hat's off to them," said Pomona Councilman Marcos Robles. "Maywood took the lead, which was very progressive on their part."

Aguirre knows the spotlight isn't about to move off his town.

"I spoke at a meeting of the League of California Cities," he said. "And this is all anyone wanted to talk to me about. I guess it sort of had an impact."

Times staff writer Kelly-Anne Suarez contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Maywood profile

(2005 estimates)

Population: 29,201

Median age: 26.4

Population 25 and older with less than 9th grade education: 47%

Median household income: $33,937

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Ethnicity

Latino: 97%

White: 2%

Other: 1%

**

Sources: Claritas, ESRI

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