Members of a Latino rights group say they want Santa Ana council members to declare their city a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, a designation that could give more protection to undocumented residents.
The discussion about making Santa Ana a sanctuary city demonstrates how Latinos are increasingly concerned about the federal government's increasing crackdown on illegal immigrants. On June 22, 175 people were arrested in Orange County on immigration violations during a five-day campaign, the largest single enforcement for immigration fugitives in Orange County. The crackdown netted 27 criminal suspects, including a murder suspect and a convicted child molester.
The fact that Congress did not pass the recent immigration legislation adds to the sense that illegal immigrants are increasingly under attack.
"The arrests make you think that Santa Ana is more vulnerable than other communities and it may be a good idea to make it a sanctuary city where immigrants do not have to be concerned about increased enforcement activity," said Amin David, who heads Los Amigos of Orange County, a civic group. The group discussed the proposal at its meeting last month.
A sanctuary city designation would discourage cooperation between federal immigration authorities and local police. But federal authorities say that although they often work with local police, they do not need local authorization to make immigration arrests. Therefore, the sanctuary designation would mostly be symbolic.
Maywood, in Los Angeles County, garnered national headlines last year when a newly elected, pro-immigrant council majority declared that city a sanctuary.
Felipe Aguirre, the Maywood councilman who pushed the sanctuary resolution, was subsequently the target of death threats by City Clerk Hector Duarte, who opposed the new direction.
Duarte, who was in jail for eight months, was charged with soliciting murder and has two years' probation.
Other cities, including Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, San Francisco, Coachella and El Centro, have adopted the designation, said Hector Alvarado, a Maywood activist.
Santa Ana Mayor Miguel Pulido did not return calls for comment. Other council members said they supported immigrants, but none have yet said they would pursue the designation.
"It's a very radical proposal for Orange County, but it would be humane," Councilman Sal Tinajero said.
"We would need to create a united front for this idea because everyone and their sister is going to be up in arms over this."
Councilwoman Michele Martinez said she inquired about the designation several months ago after learning that other cities had obtained it.
City staff has yet to respond.
"Most of the council thinks sanctuary is not going to do anything, so why even do it," Martinez said.
Nonetheless, Martinez said she was considering whether to formally bring the measure before the City Council.
Police Chief Paul Walters said he did not support the concept. Illegal immigrants are referred to federal authorities only if they commit a crime, he said.
Sanctuary "is a political statement," he said. "It's not anything we want to support in this city. We want to go after criminals and work with federal authorities."
Resident Debbie McEwen said Santa Ana was already a sanctuary city "to a certain degree," because there are so many undocumented residents and little enforcement.
Sanctuary "is humanitarian, but even with that, it's just wrong.... We all need to do our part, but we've exceeded that in Santa Ana. That's enough," she said.
The concept of sanctuary has surged recently as a handful of church leaders around the country initiated a movement to provide protection to illegal immigrants.
Based on the illegal immigrant sanctuary movement in the 1980s, the effort was begun late last year amid a sense of urgency by religious workers alarmed by immigration raids.
Santa Ana was one of more than a dozen cities where arrests were made last month. Latino leaders said they were concerned that government agents seeking criminals were arresting other illegal immigrants who live with detainees or nearby.
Anaheim attorney Juan Barba organized a meeting for family members of deported immigrants, community leaders and attorneys last month.
U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement "is terrorizing the community. People are really scared because they could leave their homes and never see their families again," he said.
"If someone is a criminal, they should be detained and sent away, but to stop someone coming out of their apartment is very scary for these families."
Luis Guevara, a community activist in San Juan Capistrano, followed government vans to witness the raids and agreed that immigration agents "are scaring people and they are pulling families apart."
ICE regional field office director Jim Hayes said his priority remained arresting criminals but "as a law enforcement agency, when we find people who are in violation of the law, we are expected to uphold our obligation."
"We're simply doing our jobs, which is to enforce laws that Congress has passed," Hayes said.
Activists expect more arrests over the summer.
On June 1, ICE created a team that for the first time will solely look for fugitives in Orange County. The team is the fifth created in Southern California since 2003, ICE spokesperson Virginia Kice said.
In the last nine months, the Los Angeles area teams have made more than 1,600 arrests of possible illegal immigrants, including more than 300 with criminal records. Nationwide, fugitive arrests have gradually increased, from 1,900 in 2003 to 21,707 in the first six months of 2007, she said.
"More arrests will definitely be made," Hayes said.
"If we have a message, it's that instead of sitting around talking about how terrible ICE is enforcing the law, these immigrant advocates would be well advised to educate people to comply with the law and tell people what the law is."