Main story: Residents question, protest new immigration policies
More than 500 people pack city council chambers to hear Congressmember Zoe Lofgren
Published in the March 15 – 28, 2017 issue of Morgan Hill Life
By Marty Cheek
An audience of nearly 550 people came to hear Zoe Lofgren, the South Valley community’s representative in Congress, address various current event issues at a town hall meeting March 4 at the Morgan Hill City Council Chamber. Many came to express their concerns relating to the local impact from recent federal changes in immigration policy enacted through executive orders signed by President Donald Trump.
Besides Morgan Hill residents, people came from Gilroy, San Martin and San Jose to hear and speak to Lofgren. The crowd was so large that many people had to stand in the aisles or watched the proceedings from televisions in the lobby and an adjacent room. Lofgren’s town hall meeting can be viewed as a one-and-a-half hour video uploaded by the city of Morgan Hill to YouTube.
“I appreciate the warm response that I got today, but my guess is that some people here disagree (with me) on various topics,” Lofgren said in her opening remarks. “And that’s what America is all about. Everybody can have their own opinions. I hope as we have those opinions, we can be respectful toward each other because Americans have a right to their own opinions.”
Several questions were posed by citizens concerned about the nation’s immigration policy and the need for reform. Lofgren is the senior Democrat on the House Committee on the Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration Policy and Enforcement. Based on her experience as an immigration law attorney and teaching immigration law at Santa Clara University before being elected to the House of Representatives, she said that immigration is a complex area of law.
“Certainly, there are a variety of viewpoints on immigration,” she said. “Right now, President Trump has engaged in a different set of policies than his predecessor, President Obama, and has recently issued a series of executive orders relative to immigration enforcement. I’ll be honest, I disagree with the emphasis that he has made.”
Among the executive orders is one that attempts to re-implement the controversial 287(g) program which lets localities become immigration agents with contract with the government. It was suspended under the Obama administration because of racial profiling. Trump wants to re-instate it. Other orders by the president have the intention to increase the number of border control agents and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and vastly increase detention facilities. As a campaign promise, Trump also is advocating building a border wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a structure estimated to cost $21.6 billion.
“I think those policies are not only expensive but basically counterproductive,” Lofgren said.
The current confusion and anger by citizens relating to immigration policy demonstrate that the nation needs extensive reform in its laws related to immigrants in America, she said. Only 5,000 green cards are issued annually for unskilled workers to enter the United States, a number too low for the economic benefit of the nation, she said. California’s agriculture industry especially needs immigrants as workers.
“We have tried and so far failed to make reform of the immigration laws which are drastically needed from top to bottom, not just in the documented population,” she said. “It really is a dysfunctional system in many ways.”
The closest America came to reform was in June 2013 when the Senate actually passed an immigration overhaul bill by 68 votes. At that time, Republicans and Democrats in the House were open to discussion on the immigration reform bill, Lofgren said. But then-House Speaker John Boehner refused to allow a vote on the bill.
With the confusion and concerns across the nation from Trump’s executive orders on immigration, municipalities have taken action relating to what the federal government might do in policing immigrants in local cities, she said. Morgan Hill and Gilroy city councils recently passed statements of support to address the fears South Valley residents, especially those of Mexican heritage, might have for their future lives in America. Some residents worry about deportation and being separated from their children.
“These new enforcement priorities are very broad and there’s great concern that people will be impacted adversely,” Lofgren said. “I do think that communities all across the country are stepping forward to try to protect innocent people. For example, most of the urban law-enforcement agencies in the state of California indicated that they do not intend to become immigration police.”
Many school districts in California have also indicated they won’t turn over student records to ICE for the possible deportation of children, she said. The Morgan Hill Unified School District and the Gilroy Unified School District boards of trustees both passed statements addressing the concern of protecting immigrant students.
Lofgren said she is working with other Democrats in Congress to write a letter to Speaker Paul Ryan encouraging him to be proactive in reforming U.S. immigration laws. She told the crowd that she spent four and a half years leading a group of Democrat and Republican representatives that privately put together a bill that, although “it wasn’t perfect,” would have been a step toward such reform. She believes many Republicans in Congress seek such reform.
“This is not impossible to do from a policy point of view. It’s really a decision on whether the leadership in the house — that’s now the Republican leadership, since they’re the majority — wants to see it,” she said. “Most of the country believes we ought to reform immigration … Most of the country believes that if you’ve been here for a long time and you’re part of our community, and if you’re working, you shouldn’t be deported.”
Gilroy City Councilmember Peter Leroe-Muñoz attended the town hall meeting and shared concerns that people in the South Valley have real fear of deportation due to the president’s executive orders on immigration. That fear impacts their family lives and the local economy, he said.
“There’s a lot of confusion around kind of where things are going to go around immigration law at the federal level,” he said. “The president fired these (orders) off in rapid succession, so it’s difficult to know with certainty what the next order around immigration is really going to address. That creates a lot of uncertainty in the community.”
The uncertainty impacts education in the South Valley, he said.
“There are children who are scared to go to school because they fear they might be picked up by immigration enforcement agents at any time,” Leroe-Muñoz. “There are parents who are afraid to go to work because they fear if they get picked up, then obviously there would be no one to provide for their children.”
Another element that is prevalent with the issue of immigration is the economic impact locally, he said.
“I talked to several business owners in the community of the South Valley area and especially those within the Latino community, they’re facing a decrease in terms of economic activities in their stores and restaurants,” he said. “And I think this goes back to a large part of that fear and uncertainty that they’re feeling.”
Late last year, ICE moved one of its regional offices to a building in the industrial area off Vineyard Boulevard in Morgan Hill. Agents at the Enforcement and Removal Operations sub-office are tasked with identifying, arresting and removing people who enter the United States illegally, including people who pose a threat to national security or are a risk to public safety. The new office oversees operations from Bakersfield to the Oregon border and across the Pacific Ocean from Hawaii to Saipan and Guam. Officials said it would not serve as a detention center for people arrested by ICE.
In February, about 200 people protested in front of the ICE office. Leroe-Muñoz was out of town during the protests. He believes the peaceful protests can send a positive message that local cities want to make sure all their residents are treated fairly under the law.
“The purpose of a protest like that is a community signal to the larger political powers that immigration is a very important issue, that migration enforcement resources should not be targeted at specific communities, but rather, those resources should be applied and used across the country,” he said.”There’s concern within the South Valley that the location and expansion of that facility is unfairly targeting the Latino community in particularly. So I think the message there is that no one community should be unfairly targeted by those federal enforcement resources and efforts.”