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News analysis: Safe haven status untrue

September 03, 2007|By JONATHAN ATHENS, Staff Writer

A July 6 story by the Associated Press that ran in this newspaper listed El Centro among five other cities that have declared themselves sanctuary cities.

The story attributed this claim to Maywood activist Hector Alvarado.

The July edition of Migration News, a publication of the University of California, also made this claim. That article stated: “A number of California cities, including Maywood, Bell Gardens, Huntington Park, San Francisco, Coachella and El Centro have declared themselves sanctuary cities.”

But there is no truth to these claims — El Centro is not, nor has it ever been a so-called “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants regardless as to where those immigrants come from.

In fact, no area elected official has publicly suggested any of Imperial County’s cities declare themselves to be safe havens for illegal immigrants.


Despite this, other newspapers repeated the error and enough people living in communities far removed from the Valley will believe the error to be true. The willingness to believe it may be a sign that the raging national debate over illegal immigration has gone on for so long and polarized so many that the line between fact and fiction is blurred beyond recognition.

“The travesty is people aren’t familiar with us to even bother checking out the facts,” said El Centro Mayor Rosanna Bayon Moore. “We’re probably being lumped in with other cities just because we are in close proximity to the border.”

The debate over illegal immigration has taken various turns in recent years but it was the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on the United States that ratcheted up the political rhetoric and intensified public debates. On the one side are the reformers who want the government to make it easier for migrant workers to come here and continue doing the labor intensive work most Americans will not do. On the other side are reformers who point to the fiscal toll illegal immigration is taking on social service agencies, health care and the criminal justice system. They see a porous border that poses a grave national security risk — if impoverished Mexicans seeking a better life can cross the Sonoran Desert into the U.S., so then could a Middle East terrorist in possession of a dirty nuclear bomb.

Facing intense criticism from both sides, the federal government post-9/11 took steps to beef up border security while at the same time maintaining a semblance of free but regulated trade with Mexico.

But the debate over migrant labor, illegal and legal, rages on — entire industries such as agriculture and meatpacking are heavily dependent if not 100 percent dependent on migrant labor and so are the communities where these workers and their families live.

Such communities do not have to officially declare themselves “sanctuary cities” to be such a community, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

“I don’t know where El Centro will fall,” Mehlman said. Some municipalities are “de facto sanctuary cities” in the sense those cities will not do anything to assist federal authorities in enforcing existing immigration laws.

Because they run the risk of getting in trouble with the federal government, area growers declined to comment on the influence and impact of illegal immigrant labor here or the subject of “sanctuary cities.”

One area grower, Mark McBroom, said he thinks the majority of illegal immigrant laborers work and live elsewhere, in communities farther away from the border because they do not want to run the risk of getting caught and deported.

“Illegal immigrants don’t hang around here in Imperial County. They go north,” McBroom said, adding the heavy presence of Border Patrol agents here deters them from staying.

But being dependent on migrant labor in general is “one of the hardships of labor down here,” he said.

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