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Garcetti aide is face of city's outreach to foreign-born residents

Linda Lopez is the face of mayor's efforts to better integrate L.A.'s foreign-born population into city life

Gustavo Hernandez sat with his family in a large auditorium in the downtown Central Library, a pen and pad in his lap.

He had come for a free workshop, organized by the office of Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, to reapply for a federal program that grants temporary work permits to immigrants who were brought to the United States illegally when they were children.

Hernandez, 21, who crossed from Mexico with his parents in the 1990s, listened intently as Linda Lopez, a representative from Garcetti's office, sought to put the crowd at ease. "You don't have to fear," Lopez told them. "We're here to help you."

Lopez, the daughter of Ecuadorean immigrants, is the face of Garcetti's efforts to better integrate L.A.'s large foreign-born population into city life. She was appointed last year to direct the mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs, a department Garcetti resurrected on a campaign promise after it was de-funded by his predecessor, Antonio Villaraigosa.

In her first year, Lopez, 44, has lobbied Washington to overhaul the nation's immigration laws and counseled Garcetti and the Los Angeles Police Department to stop a controversial practice of holding some immigrant inmates after their date of release so federal agents could take them into custody.

Her office organizes classes for immigrants about how to apply for driver's licenses and other programs and oversees a network of "citizenship corners" in public libraries, where those eligible to become naturalized citizens can get information on the process.

This summer, as protesters in the Riverside County city of Murrieta turned away busloads of immigrant children being taken to a Border Patrol processing facility, Lopez was meeting with immigration officials at City Hall, offering up Los Angeles as a location for temporary shelters for the kids.

For Hernandez, who drove from Whittier for the recent workshop, the city's work on behalf of immigrants is a welcome surprise. "Compared to most other places," he said, "they're actually supportive of us here."

Los Angeles has been burnishing its reputation for years as one of the most immigrant-friendly cities in the nation. Mayor James Hahn first established the Office of Immigrant Affairs in 2004, modeling it after a similar office in New York City. When Villaraigosa unseated Hahn the following year, he closed the office but directed senior staff to help craft pro-immigrant policies.

He did away with the LAPD's 30-day vehicle impound policy, which advocates said disproportionately targeted immigrants who were in the country unlawfully, and came out against a federal program that put federal immigration agents in local jails.

Now, as hopes fade for a comprehensive immigration overhaul bill in Congress, Los Angeles and other state and local governments are taking it upon themselves to fill perceived gaps in the immigration system, according to Jaime Regalado, professor emeritus of political science at Cal State Los Angeles.

California lawmakers recently passed a bill to limit federal officials' power to hold and deport immigrants who have committed minor crimes and last month voted to set aside $3 million in state funds to provide legal representation for children facing deportation.

"Local and state governments have tried to move the needle given the picture in Washington, where it's a state of paralysis on immigration," Regalado said.

Lopez believes that work is especially important in Los Angeles, where more than 1 in 3 residents was born outside of the country, and roughly 1 in 10 is in the U.S. without permission.

"If the federal government doesn't do anything around immigration reform, we still have these populations here locally," Lopez said. "So we have to be creative and innovative around how we develop policies that will assist them and integrate them into the city's fabric."

Lopez was raised in Upland by immigrants who met in Los Angeles in the 1960s. She was the first member of her family to attend college, getting a bachelor's degree from Cal Poly Pomona and a doctorate in political science from USC, where she went on to serve as an associate dean focused on diversity issues.

She got to know Garcetti through his chief of staff, Ana Guerrero, and hosted multiple fundraisers for Garcetti during last year's mayoral campaign.

Lopez, who earns a salary of $107,000 and has one city employee assisting her, said amplifying the voice of immigrants is one of her primary roles.

When Filipino immigrants asked for help last year in their quest to win special immigration status that would give a temporary reprieve from deportation in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, which devastated parts of the Philippines, Lopez asked Garcetti to write a letter of support to Obama administration officials.

She also invited Filipino leaders to a meeting with Jeh Johnson, the director of the Department of Homeland Security, where one activist, Aquilina Soriano-Versoza, was able to directly petition Johnson on the issue.

"Linda was really good at making sure this is a priority with the administration," said Versoza, the executive director of the Pilipino Workers Center of Southern California. "She's always been very conscious of making sure our community is at the table at meetings with officials that probably have not heard from our community as much."

Not everyone agrees that city resources should be spent on immigrants here illegally. Maria Fotopoulos, who lives in West L.A., said there are more pressing priorities, such as repairing the city's water pipelines and aging streets.

"Why are we not spending taxpayer money on the citizens of L.A. and all the things that need to be fixed in L.A.?" said Fotopoulos, who belongs to Californians for Population Stabilization, which advocates for stricter immigration laws. "Shouldn't we be taking care of our people first?"

At a conference at Loyola Law School this month about the nation's immigration court system, Lopez made no distinction between L.A. residents in the country legally and those who are not. Speaking on a panel, she called for more legal services to be made available to immigrants facing deportation and asked L.A.'s legal community to help her map a plan to do so.

"What are those resources?" she said. "And what are the gaps?"

kate.linthicum@latimes.com
Twitter: @katelinthicum

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