Although Thursday’s eight-hour, 1,400-attendee Santa Maria City Council meeting resulted in a 3-2 vote to approve an Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) facility in the town, those who have fought against the building said Friday morning that they can still effect change in the community.
“ICE may have won the battle, but we’re winning the war,” said Christina Fialho of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), one of the four groups whose appeals to the Planning Commission’s February 5 approval were heard by the council Thursday. Fialho said that her organization will work with national leaders — such as Congresswoman Lois Capps, who sent letters to ICE in February and March asking that a final decision be delayed — on immigration reform measures. Fialho added that CIVIC is looking into all of its responsive options but that filing a lawsuit against the city remains undecided.
“It was a disappointment,” said Hazel Putney-Davalos, of the vote to deny the appeals. As part of the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), Putney-Davalos said that the community’s uproar is a catalyst for voter registration, especially since councilmembers Jack Boysen and Willie Green, who voted in favor of the facility, are up for re-election in November. So far, CAUSE has signed up 100 new voters in the past month.
“We’re going to continue that work now with an even stronger motive,” she said. “At the least, the one positive we can pull out of this is that thousands of people in Santa Maria now know who the city council is.” Putney-Davalos added that CAUSE has also received approximately 3,000 signatures supporting its efforts to implement district elections in the city; they need 4,500 by April 11 to qualify for the November ballot.
Thursday’s meeting, which saw 1,200 people pack the city’s Fairpark convention center and 200 people congregate outside, included presentations from each of the four appellants, an ICE representative, and about 80 public speakers; during one of the breaks, hundreds of people rallied outside. Everything spoken in English was translated into Spanish, which city staff said was not legally required but was done as a courtesy. In order for the council to overturn the commission’s decision and approve the appeals — which together claimed that the building would be detrimental toward residents’ health, safety, and the property values of their homes — they were required to find an error in the commission’s analysis. Mayor Alice Patino and councilmember Terri Zuniga were the only ones to side with the four appellants: CIVIC, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), homeowners, and Santa Maria resident and former New Jersey State Police trooper Scott Fina.
“Please do not tear our city apart,” said Gloria Acosta of LULAC, who along with several others wore a shirt that read “Take Action — Vote” on the front and featured a Cesar Chavez quote on the back. “We are all gathered together to say no to this,” Acosta continued. “Please, please listen to us.” Acosta highlighted the purchasing power of the city’s 30,000-plus Latino community — nearly $900,000 per year from just $1 spent per person per day — and warned that many residents would choose to move out of Santa Maria if the ICE facility came to fruition.
Two of the neighbors challenging the building’s approval, John McConnell and Linda Williams, also spoke. McConnell said that they had gathered 300 signatures in opposition to the center, with concerns about decreased home values and lack of local oversight peppering his speech. Williams, who worked in real estate for many years, put the council on the spot. “City councilmembers, who are you beholden to?” she asked. In his speech, appellant Fina also punctuated his presentation with a question, asking “How will the city’s long-term interests be served by the ICE facility?”
To be located at 740 West Century Street, near homes and the planned North County Jail, the 9,700-square foot, one-story building would take over the duties currently performed at the ICE facility at the Lompoc prison. It would operate only on weekdays and during normal business hours, and would take custody of no more than 13 people in a 12-hour period, after which time most of the detainees would be driven down to Los Angeles-area detention centers. Despite residents’ fears, ICE officials have said repeatedly that the building’s presence wouldn’t lead to raids but would only detain those from regional jails or prisons who had been convicted of serious crimes.
According to city manager Rick Haydon, ICE officials have been looking into moving from Lompoc to Santa Maria for several years and had initially sought to move into an existing building, in which case they could have just applied for a permit from the city and bypassed council and commission involvement. At two city council meetings in January, separate votes approved zoning changes to designate the property as one for office space, which befuddled many people. The planning commission meeting in February — which saw about 5,000 people show up in opposition — approved the permit for the facility.
At Thursday’s hearing, David Marin, a deputy field office director for ICE, kept his comments short. “This is not a detention center,” he said. “This is going to be an ICE office space.” (His presentation was interrupted by a man shouting against the project, who was quickly escorted out of the building by two of the several police officers standing by. The man’s comments caused the crowd to erupt into applause — they had mostly waved their hands in the air to signal their agreement — and Patino to chide them, saying “You have to show the same respect and you weren’t showing it right there.”) Martin added that, following the commission’s February decision, ICE had conducted community outreach — a comment that prompted the audience to wag their fingers in the air — and that the facility would protect residents from criminals.
Don Walter, the facility’s property owner and developer, said the concern over the facility was misguided and that given the security the building would provide, he would “love to have them in my backyard.” Prior to the council’s vote, Walter said that approval of the project would mean a quick start for construction, with the process taking about 10 months to complete.
Although he voted against the appeals, councilmember Jack Boysen said he understood where the concerns were coming from but that he believes ICE officials have “plenty on their plate just trying to get the bad guys” and that raids aren’t something he sees happening. Boysen, up for re-election in November, acknowledged that it would have been a “much more popular decision” politically if he had voted against the building but that he didn’t vote with re-election in mind. “I’m so encouraged by the fact that we had so many people show up at the previous meetings,” he said. “If this gets people to register to vote and exercises their political voice in our community, I think that’s great.”
UPDATE from Lois Capps: I am very disappointed by the City Council’s decision to move forward on this project, a decision they made over the objections of so many in the broader Santa Maria community. At this point, with this final vote, we will never know if a more suitable location could have been found had the process been delayed to allow for the Santa Maria community to have the time to adequately assess any other options.
Looking forward, I will continue to work with the Santa Maria community to help ensure that ICE is more engaged with the local community in a formalized, on-going manner when making future decisions.