Sanchez Pushes Sanctuary Proposal

By Brian Seals, The Salinas Californian
September 24, 2007

Even if it were only a symbolic move, declaring Salinas a "sanctuary city" would be worthwhile, a councilman said late last week.

Sergio Sanchez said he wants his colleagues on the City Council to consider declaring Salinas a safe haven for undocumented immigrants and join a growing list of such cities in the Monterey Bay area and around the country.

Under Sanchez's proposal, city police would not assist in federal immigration raids nor ask questions about a person's immigration status. The Police Department already refrains from doing that.

Sanchez said existing police policy is sound, but a sanctuary measure would send a symbolic message to the area's undocumented residents.

"I just want to make sure we send a message to the community that every single resident is valued," Sanchez said, noting many immigrants are fearful of raids and deportation.

Sanchez requested Sept. 11 that city officials research the matter and place it on a future City Council agenda. It has not yet come up for further discussion or vote, and the council is not scheduled to meet this week.

Mayor Dennis Donohue said he would oppose such a resolution because it would "send the wrong signal" as the city seeks federal aid for programs to fight violence.

The councils of Santa Cruz and Watsonville declared their cities as sanctuaries earlier this year as a fruitless immigration reform debate heated up in Congress.

Donohue acknowledged immigration reform is overdue.

"I think we would all agree that Washington let us down (on immigration reform)," he said.

Salinas police generally don't inquire about a person's immigration status, Chief Dan Ortega said. One of the city's highest priorities is combating gang crime. Police want crime witnesses to come forward and residents to report suspicious activity, and asking about immigration status would hinder that, the chief said.

"We're asking people to cooperate with us," Ortega said. "The last thing we need to do is turn around and ask them what their status is."

Salinas police also don't participate in broad sweeps by immigration agents.

But Salinas police would join forces with any federal authorities who had information about a specific person with a criminal history, Ortega said.

"I would have no hesitation in cooperating if the end result is going to get a violent, dangerous individual out of our community," he said.

Move could allay fears

Even if declaring Salinas a sanctuary would be purely symbolic because it would have no impact on immigration enforcement, it would still be valuable to the area's immigrant community, said Cesar Lara, director of the Citizenship Project in Salinas.

"There are a high percentage of immigrants who come here to work," Lara said. "They're fearful of raids."

More and more local governments are taking up the issue, he said, because Congress has failed to do anything in regard to reform.

"It's a reflection of why the government needed to fix the problem," Lara said.

Groups that oppose illegal immigration say declaring a city a sanctuary is a bad idea.

"It makes their community a magnet for more illegals," said Rick Oltman, spokesman for the Santa Barbara-based Californians for Population Stabilization.

Oltman said sanctuary cities are "pandering to the business" interests that benefit from immigrant labor.

Contact Brian Seals at brseals@thecalifornian.com.

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