Although last 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 maintain that although the approval was a negative, the possibility of the issue effecting change on the community in the future is a positive.
“ICE may have won the battle, but we’re winning the war,” said Christina Fialho of Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement (CIVIC), which is now working with national leaders — including Congressmember Lois Capps, who sent letters to ICE in February and March asking that a final decision be delayed — on immigration reform measures. There may also be a lawsuit against the city, according to Gloria Acosta of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), which she said is meeting with attorneys to suss out what legal action, “even as light as a pin drop,” is possible.
“It was a disappointment,” said Hazel Putney-Davalos of the vote. But 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 reelection in November. So far, CAUSE Action Fund has signed up 100 new voters in the past month and gathered another 3,000 signatures supporting district elections in the city.
“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.” She said that the meeting’s strong turnout — coupled with the 5,000-person turnout at the February commission hearing — was “amazing” and could pave the way for “strong leaders” going forward. “We’re going to have so many people to make our job easier,” she said.
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 groups against the facility as well as 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. Several farmers let their workers off early that day to attend the afternoon meeting.
The appellants — CIVIC, LULAC, homeowners, and former New Jersey State Police trooper Scott Fina — argued the building would be detrimental to residents’ health, safety, and the property values of their homes. Mayor Alice Patino and Councilmember Terri Zuniga were the only ones on the dais convinced.
“Please do not tear our city apart,” Acosta said, who, along with several others, wore a shirt that read “Take Action – Vote” on the front and featured a César Chávez quote on the back. “We are all gathered together to say no to this,” Acosta continued. “Please, please listen to us.”
To be located at 740 West Century Street — and about a five-minute drive from the North County Jail, slated to open in 2018 — the 9,700-square-foot, one-story building would take over the duties performed since 1996 at the ICE facility in Lompoc. It would operate during normal business hours on weekdays and take custody of no more than 13 people in a 12-hour period; most detainees would then be driven to detention centers in Los Angeles. 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 Sheriff’s department spokesperson Kelly Hoover, last year the County Jail released an average of 51 people per month to ICE, for a total of 611 that year. In January and February 2014, the jail has released 47 and 29 people to ICE, respectively. How many have actually been deported is unclear.
David Marin, a deputy field officer for ICE, kept his comments short at the meeting. Following the commission’s February meeting, he said, ICE conducted community outreach — a comment that prompted the audience to wag their fingers in the air — and argued that the facility would protect residents from criminals. If all goes as planned, the building will open by January 2015.
Capps released a statement following the council’s vote: “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, ongoing manner when making future decisions.”
Patino, who previously voted in favor of the building, said that she switched her vote after speaking with legislators and ICE officials in between the council’s meetings. “I don’t have to agree with people; they have to be represented,” she said Monday. She added that people should remember that ICE has long been operating in Lompoc.
While Putney-Davalos acknowledged that the facility’s move from Lompoc to Santa Maria likely won’t result in “hugely drastic changes,” the concerns of the city’s Latino community — some families have already left town, she said — are valid. “Now that there’s that fear, we really have to work on getting people informed,” she said, adding that keeping the city’s 11,000 Latino registered voters engaged through November will include starting campaigning and fundraising early.