In the wake of a recent federal immigration arrests and deportations, East Palo Alto officials are reviewing programs to help the city's large immigrant population.
The City Council held a three-hour study session on Wednesday night -- the evening prior to the "A Day Without Immigrants" national strike -- bringing together law enforcement and legal advocates. The council did not vote during the session but examined its current policies and potential ways to strengthen them.
Roughly two-thirds of the city's residents are Latino or Pacific Islander, according to the nonprofit group Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto. The city approved three resolutions between 2007 and 2012 to protect immigrants.
The first, in 2007, directs all city departments, including police, to refrain from acting as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) "agents" in any program or operation targeting individuals solely based on their immigration status. It also calls for ICE to stop displaying the word "police" on their uniforms, which has confused residents and caused fear of actual local police officers.
The 2010 and 2012 resolutions called upon the San Mateo County Board of Supervisors to direct its departments against cooperating with the Secure Communities Program and to refrain from using county funds to help federal immigration officials. The 2012 resolution also asked the county probation department to refrain from reporting juveniles to ICE or honoring juvenile ICE detainer requests.
At Wednesday's study session, East Palo Alto Police Chief Albert Pardini reassured residents the department is complying with the city's resolution. Officers don't arrest undocumented residents and they don't ask about anyone's status, he said. The department does not hand over anyone it arrests to ICE agents. But he warned residents that they should not commit any crimes, regardless of how slight, because an arrest would put them into a system that would alert ICE, and that could lead to deportation if the person is not in the country legally.
Pardini and San Mateo County Sheriff Capt. Paul Kunkel said their agencies want residents to know they can call upon them for help or when crimes are being committed without fear.
"If you need our help, we are here to help you. We are not here to deport you," Kunkel told residents.
The sheriff's department, which handles the jail system for the city, also does not inquire into, investigate or report an individual's status to ICE, and it doesn't generally detain inmates for ICE to pick up past their release date without a legal reason, Kunkel said. It is his also understanding that the juvenile detention center does not give information nor turn over juveniles to ICE.
Victoria Tinoco, a paralegal with Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto, and Grisel Ruiz, a staff attorney with the San Francisco-based Immigration Legal Resource Center, discussed various aspects of ICE tactics, current policies and legal rights.
Ruiz said that it is very important for people to understand their rights. People should have a plan in place for what to do if ICE agents come calling, such as who will take their children if a parent is detained or deported. And people don't have to speak to ICE agents or let them into their homes, she said.
"There are certain rights that not even the president can take away. Keep the door shut," she added.
Council members wanted to know how the executive order on withholding federal funding from sanctuary cities might affect East Palo Alto. Officials have never called the city's resolutions "sanctuary," but in many aspects that is what they have, City Attorney Rafael Alvarado Jr. said.
The council could choose to officially declare East Palo Alto a "sanctuary city." It could also adopt a resolution expressing support for existing legal challenges to Executive Order 13768, an executive order signed by President Donald Trump on Jan. 25, staff said.
"Enhancing Public Safety in the Interior of the United States" orders that jurisdictions failing to comply with applicable federal law would not receive federal funds except where necessary for law enforcement. The order is vague in its definition of what constitutes a "sanctuary jurisdiction," leaving the definition up to the U.S. Attorney General or the Secretary of Homeland Security, Alvarado noted.
Aspects of the order could be troubling for local jurisdictions that do not comply. The document seeks to engage local officials as immigration officers through agreements that would contribute to the investigation, apprehension and detention of residents who are not in the U.S. legally. The Secretary of Homeland Security is required to file a "declined detainer outcome report" on sanctuary jurisdictions on a weekly basis and to "make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens and any jurisdiction that ignored or otherwise failed to honor any detainers with respect to such aliens."
Councilman Carlos Romero asked how the city's resolutions and any subsequent changes might affect federal funding. He stressed that even if funding were taken away, that wouldn't mean he would decline to support undocumented immigrants. But he wanted to make sure that "we go into it with our eyes open," he said.
Alvarado said that the city's policies offer lower risk than those of declared sanctuary cities, and the current thinking is that the city still is in compliance with the law. Staff noted the true impact of the order isn't known, but at least two California sanctuary jurisdictions have sued on grounds that the order violates the Tenth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution because it coerces state and local governments into assisting with federal immigration enforcement. The City and County of San Francisco filed a lawsuit on Jan. 31 and the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors authorized filing a lawsuit challenging the order on the same day, Alvarado noted.
Staff recommended the council consolidate the three existing policies into one and adopt a resolution that expressly prohibits the police department from arresting or detaining a person on the basis of an ICE request or other alleged immigration-law violations. The city could choose to expressly prohibit its police from inquiring into immigration status.
Councilwoman Lisa Gauthier said it might be premature to have strict standards in a revised resolution since the federal policies are still being developed. But she supported coming up with funding during the city's budget process for civil-rights training and other supportive services.
Council members seemed inclined to help residents to help themselves.
Vice Mayor Ruben Abrica noted that many people, including native-born Americans, don't know or remember their Constitutional rights, and that makes them vulnerable.
"Maybe we should put on the city's website what the rights are," he said.
Mayor Larry Moody thought more proactive training would help residents prepare if they have an encounter with ICE.
"Maybe the city could offer mock exercises for residents on how to engage an ICE officer," he said.
The council seemed interested in establishing a fund for legal assistance for immigrants and "know your rights" trainings. Such trainings are already taking place monthly through the nonprofit group Comite Latino and could be expanded, Abrica said.
The council will discuss program options at a future date.
Comite Latino "Know Your Rights" trainings take place on the fourth Tuesday of each month from 6:30-8:30 p.m. at the East Palo Alto Municipal Center, 2415 University Ave. The trainings are free. Dates are Feb. 28, March 28, April 25, May 23, June 27 and July 25. People wanting information or to volunteer call 650-321-4001.
Community Legal Services in East Palo Alto has an immigration program with four attorneys who help residents with legal issues. It is holding a training, "Asylum for Families and Unaccompanied Children Training," on March 1. Information is available at clsepa.org.
The Immigration Legal Resource Center offers trainings, research, educational materials and advocacy related to immigration issues, including on the changing status of immigration law and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Comprehensive information about immigration enforcement, rights and the law can be found at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center, ilrc.org.