Two undocumented immigrants have been named to city commission posts in the Los Angeles County area, marking a controversial step to incorporate a growing demographic in Southern California into city politics.
Julian Zatarain, 21, and Francisco Medina, 29, were named to the Huntington Park parks and recreation commission and the health and education commission, respectively. The town, which is about 5 miles from downtown Los Angeles, has long been a first stop for many undocumented immigrants moving to the United States from Mexico and other parts of Latin America.
"I'm speaking out for people like me," Zatarain, who was brought to the U.S. when he was 13 from the Mexican state of Sinaloa, told the Los Angeles Times. "I'm not doing anything wrong."
The large undocumented immigrant population in the city has resulted in low voter turnout rates – with some elections dropping below 10 percent in the last decade – and there is a widespread belief that this has led to the numerous corruption cases that have plagued city hall in neighboring cities like Bell and Vernon.
Officials in Huntington Park said that while undocumented immigrants may not be able to vote, that should not prevent them helping their communities in other ways.
But critics blasted the move, saying it awards lawbreakers.
Robin Hvidston, executive director of We the People Rising, an immigration enforcement group in California, said the appointments take two commission seats away from U.S. citizens.
"To appoint commission seats to individuals who are breaking federal laws demonstrates that lack of respect for U.S. law," she said.
California law does not prohibit undocumented immigrants from serving as appointed commissioners, but the two men will have to undergo background checks and, unlike other city commissioners, they won't receive a monthly stipend, which generally ranges from $25 to $75.
"Our population includes documented and undocumented immigrants, and I wanted to make sure everyone could participate," said Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias, according to the Times. "If we're going to talk about transparency, being open and having a community that's involved, then the conversation also has to include undocumented immigrants. I'm hoping other cities are looking at what we're doing here."
Observers say that Huntington Park’s choice to appoint Zatarain and Medina as commissioners is part of a growing trend, both in California and in other parts of the U.S., to include undocumented immigrants in public life. The neighboring city of Maywood made headlines back in 2006 by declaring that it would be a so-called sanctuary city and repealed practices that some considered anti-immigrant. Sanctuary cities have come under fire after the shooting death of 32-year-old Kate Steinle, who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant from Mexico who had a long rap sheet and had been deported – and then returned to the U.S. – five times.
"It's all about inclusion in civic engagement and also about using the resources a city has, and the No. 1 resource in any city are its people," said Fernando Guerra, the director of the Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University.
While city officials have generally praised the move, some residents and immigration hardliners are deriding the appointments as bad examples for the rest of the country and something that will bring unwanted attention to the working-class city.
"There are more qualified people," Linda Caraballo, a former councilwoman and resident of Huntington Park, told the Times. "How could they be policy advisors if they can't even vote for the council members? This is just going to bring media attention, it's going to create national debate and it is something the city of Huntington Park doesn't need."