Immigration debate intensifies in San Jose
Residents gathered at a community meeting in Thousand Oaks to discuss immigration policies in the wake of the death of Bambi Larson. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

The debate on sanctuary city policies intensified at a City Council meeting this week after an update on activities of a government office — implemented to help and protect undocumented immigrants — sparked controversy.

The debate, spurred by the recent death of a San Jose woman who was allegedly killed by an undocumented immigrant, continued at a community meeting Wednesday and highlights the concern some residents have over the safety and security of their neighborhoods as they grow more diverse with immigrants.

In a statement following the death of the slain woman Bambi Larson, Mayor Sam Liccardo said it’s “long overdue for the County to reconsider its current policy of ignoring ICE hold requests for predatory felons.”

Liccardo has maintained his position for the past four years that the county should reconsider its stance on sanctuary policies after the murder of Kathryn Steinle in San Francisco stating that “elected officials should be able to distinguish between a violent, predatory felon and more than the 99 percent of members of our immigrant communities who would never commit such crimes.”

Mayor Sam Liccardo addresses residents at a community meeting in Thousand Oaks to discuss immigration policies in the wake of the death of Bambi Larson. Photo by Nadia Lopez.

“They would simply need to pick up the phone and call the authorities when those individuals would be released into the community,” added Liccardo.

Implemented in 2015, the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs provides immigrants with a wide set of resources to help create pathways to citizenship, protect against deportations, and integrate the immigrant community in civic engagement.

The office has been criticized for providing immigrants with safety networks through its Rapid Response Hotline — a community defense project intended to help those in the event that Immigration and Customs Enforcement activity takes place.

“We need to ask our authority leaders to revisit these laws and policies,” Sam Ho, president of the Thousand Oaks Neighborhood Association, said at a community meeting on Wednesday. “Whether undocumented or documented, laws and policies have to work, and we demand that from our leaders.”

But several immigrants disagreed, denouncing the mayor’s comments for politicizing the death of Bambi Larson.

Chava Bustamante, Executive Director of Latinos United for a New America, said that he’s “very disappointed” in how city officials are responding.

“It’s a tragic coincidence that this guy is an undocumented immigrant,” said Bustamante, adding that the mayor’s comments will contribute to the growing mistrust and fear of authorities rampant in immigrant communities. “But attacking the sanctuary policy of the county and blaming immigrants for this is not the right thing to do.”

Bustamante added that immigrants have lower incarceration rates than native-born American adults, and believes that the current political climate is “creating a perception that undocumented immigrants are killers and bad people.”

Councilmember Johnny Khamis — an immigrant himself — echoed the mayor’s comments Tuesday night, saying that he stands with the “hardworking people” and not with “murderers.”

Councilmember Raul Peralez was quick to repudiate his comments stating that he was “not with murderers either.” That kind of rhetoric around politicizing an incident, he added, suggests that if individuals support the county policy that they are by default also supporting criminals.

Councilmember Sylvia Arenas also demonstrated support for the city’s immigration affairs office, saying that the real issue around public safety is about mental illness — not immigration.

“We have fought so hard for immigrant rights,” said Arenas. “This individual should be held accountable. I don’t think he should be deported, I think he should be held accountable.”

“It brings me a great sense of satisfaction that we have the Office of Immigrant Affairs,” added Councilmember Magdalena Carrasco. “Why shouldn’t we be a welcoming city, especially at a time when our communities are under attack by the highest office — the White House. We’re here to support.”

Contact Nadia Lopez at nadia@sanjosespotlight.com or follow @n_llopez on Twitter.

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