San Jose: Mayor and police chief in crosshairs of immigration debate
Sita Stukes sits with her son Archer Stukes outside City Hall during an immigration rally in 2019 dubbed "Enough is Enough." File photo.

    Despite Mayor Sam Liccardo denouncing President Donald Trump’s threat of ICE raids in sanctuary cities, local activists say San Jose lawmakers and police must do more to build trust with the undocumented community.

    Immigrant rights advocates say Liccardo and San Jose Police Chief Eddie Garcia’s comments on Santa Clara County’s proposal to amend its ICE detainer policy stirred more distrust of authority among immigrants in San Jose.

    During a rally dubbed “Enough is Enough” on Tuesday, several speakers expressed concern over inconsistent statements from the city and law enforcement.

    They say it has generated fear among undocumented residents toward local authorities.

    “We want the city elected officials to be as strong supporters of our immigrant community as the county has taken a very strong position,” said Veronica Goei, director of Grail Family Services. Goei represents the Si Se Puede Collective, comprised of five nonprofits representing the immigrant community in East Side San Jose.

    “We’ve had months of mixed messages on ICE from Mayor Liccardo and Chief Garcia,” said Serena Alvarez, the president of council 3090 for the League of United Latin American Citizens.

    Alvarez referenced Liccardo and Garcia’s support for Santa Clara County’s exploration of revising its ICE detainer policy, a position both leaders say they took long before the brutal killing of San Jose resident Bambi Larson in March, which reignited the contentious debate.

    The county’s exploration of changing its sanctuary city policy could have changed a measure that prevented law enforcement officials from notifying ICE when they detained undocumented immigrants. The Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted unanimously to make no changes to the policy, much to the relief of advocates.

    The rally came days after Liccardo made an impromptu announcement at City Hall, reassuring immigrants that San Jose would not cooperate with ICE if the agency raided the city, as proposed by Trump.

    Trump recanted his tweeted proposal days later, but the initial tweet was enough to prompt Liccardo to make a statement.

    “We think it’s very important that no one change what they’re doing in their daily life because of this pronouncement from this president,” Liccardo said during a news conference Friday. “We’ve certainly heard lots of pronouncements in the past from this president and what he has threatened has not materialized.”

    The mayor encouraged residents to report any immigration agents they believed violated constitutional law.

    “What I’m encouraging our residents to do is where they observe any federal agent from ICE entering a home or a business without consent and without a warrant, those are instances where we need to hold ICE accountable,” Liccardo said, adding that the city will use that data to take legal action against ICE for trespassing and other violations of constitutional law.

    But community activists at the rally said that lawmakers need to mend their relationship with undocumented residents after voicing support for the county’s attempt to change its ICE detainer policies.

    Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks to media during a news conference, last Friday, to denounce ICE raid threats by President Donald Trump. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

    Liccardo appears to be stuck between a rock and a hard place. When he voices support for immigrants, as he did on Friday, the mayor is attacked by conservatives who say the county’s policy caused Larson’s death — a charge that is inaccurate. But when he advocates for changing the policy, activists say he loses the trust of the immigrant community and he’s accused of playing both sides.

    “The community right now is suffering terribly because they have felt they can not call the police, and that’s a direct result of the civil detainer debate that took place in this county,” Alvarez said.

    Liccardo responded to the criticism in an interview with San José Spotlight on Tuesday, doubling down on his push to amend the county detainer policy to honor hold requests made by immigration authorities for violent or serious felons.

    The mayor’s call for the county to reevaluate its policy dates back to 2015, when he sent a letter to Santa Clara County Supervisor Dave Cortese outlining why officials should work with ICE in those cases. Allowing ICE to deport immigrants charged with committing dangerous crimes would increase public safety in San Jose, Liccardo argued in the letter.

    “I think it’s really important to distinguish between what advocates and the people in the majority of the community are saying,” Liccardo told San José Spotlight. “No one speaks for everybody.”

    The mayor explained that the “small handful” of immigrants charged with violent crimes are likely to put other immigrants in danger, if released onto the streets.

    “If a violent criminal is released from jail, they’re not going to live in the East Foothills or the Rose Garden,” Liccardo said.

    Serena Alvarez, the president of council 3090 for the League of United Latin American Citizens, makes a statement during the “Enough is Enough” rally outside City Hall. Photo by Mauricio La Plante.

    But advocates maintain that it’s “unconstitutional” to hold anyone for ICE without a fair trial, regardless of the severity of a crime.

    Father Jon Pedigo of Catholic Charities of Santa Clara County said detainer policies ensure undocumented residents are not stripped of their right to due process, as outlined in the fifth and fourteenth amendments of the constitution.

    “Your citizenship status does not determine how much or how little rights you have,” Pedigo said. “There’s absolutely no way you can allow that to happen.”

    Community members also questioned Chief Garcia’s commitment to protecting immigrants after he aligned himself with Liccardo in the push to change the county’s sanctuary policy. Even so, Garcia clarified that his police officers would not cooperate with ICE nor would undocumented immigrants be apprehended when reporting crimes.

    The two prominent leaders, it seems, are on a mission to bridge the divide. Garcia and Liccardo, along with the police officers’ union, hosted a barbecue Sunday at the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish Catholic Church during Spanish mass to reassure residents that police would not participate in immigration enforcement.

    Garcia did not respond to requests for comment.

    Although ICE did not conduct the mass raids Trump proposed, the divisive dialogue in the South Bay has been detrimental to immigrants’ mental health in San Jose, said Reymundo Espinoza, chief executive officer of Gardner Health Services, a nonprofit that provides health care for undocumented and disenfranchised residents of Santa Clara County.

    “We’re hearing a lot of trauma, how the kids are being traumatized and the families are being traumatized,” said Espinoza. “You have the person at the highest level basically saying, ‘We’re going to raid you and we’re going to come into your communities and arrest you.’”

    Liccardo said he understands the anxiety immigrants might feel, but cautioned against raising unnecessary alarm.

    “The fact that some may try to create a slippery slope out of it is precisely what is so counterproductive,” said Liccardo. “We’re trying to mitigate fear… why should we make people scared who have no reason to be scared?”

    Contact San José Spotlight intern Mauricio La Plante at [email protected] or follow @mslaplantenews on Twitter.

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