CALIFORNIA POLITICS

Illegal-immigration opponents say lawmaker barred them from public meeting

Activists' complaints against state Sen. Ricardo Lara say he blocked them from a public meeting in South Gate

Members of a group that opposes public benefits for immigrants in the country illegally have filed complaints with the state alleging that a lawmaker violated their civil rights by excluding them from a public meeting on the issue.

The state Department of Fair Employment and Housing is looking into complaints by four activists alleging that they were improperly excluded from a recent meeting in South Gate to which the public had been invited by state Sen. Ricardo Lara (D-Bell Gardens).

The event at South Gate Park Auditorium was described by Lara's office as a "community roundtable" on immigration, co-sponsored by UCLA.

The complaints come as state lawmakers have worked to increase public benefits to immigrants who live in California illegally, including the right to driver's licenses, college financial aid and healthcare coverage for those 18 and younger.

"We have four complaints against Sen. Ricardo Lara," said Fahizah Alim, a deputy director of the agency. "They are open and under investigation."

The activists accuse Lara of violating California's Unruh Civil Rights Act, according to Alim. The Act prohibits certain kinds of discrimination.

The accusations were made by Raul Rodriguez Jr., Robin Hvidston and other members of a Claremont-based group called We The People Rising. Rodriguez said complaints had also been filed against the California Highway Patrol, which provides security for lawmakers and whose officers kept activists out of the South Gate meeting.

Rodriguez's complaint, like the others', alleges that Lara took "adverse actions" against him and denied him "full or equal accommodations" on the basis of his political affiliation.

"He violated our rights, and I want to hold him accountable," Rodriguez, an Apple Valley resident, said in an interview.

Members of the group said they responded to an RSVP request for the March 27 event in advance. When 12 members showed up for the 6 p.m. gathering, California Highway Patrol officers told them they could not attend because Lara and his staff feared they would be disruptive, according to a video of the encounter.

Officers ordered the activists to move away from the building or face being handcuffed, the video, made by a group member, shows.

Rodriguez said the group had attended other events and had not been disruptive.

A hundred other people were allowed into the event, according to a report by Lara's office. When a Highway Patrol commanding officer showed up an hour and 45 minutes after the event started, members of the group were allowed inside for the final 15 minutes, Hvidston said.

"We were discriminated against," she said. "We were only let into the event at the end under police escort and under the threat of being removed."

Rodriguez said some people in the audience who were sympathetic to immigrant benefits were allowed to make comments, but his group was not. "We could not exercise our 1st Amendment rights," he said.

Lara said in a statement Wednesday that he was familiar with We The People Rising, whose members have "met on several occasions with my staff ... and have had the opportunity to express their views.

"They have also attended Senate events and at times disrupted official Senate business," the senator said. "Without having reviewed this alleged complaint, I cannot comment on this matter further."

A state Justice Department fact sheet on the Unruh Civil Rights Act says it covers discrimination by businesses and other entities on grounds including race, gender, sexual orientation and disabilities but adds: "The Unruh Act also prohibits discrimination based on personal characteristics, geographical origin, physical attributes and individual beliefs."

Members of We The People Rising have been in the news before. Some attended heated protests in Murrieta last year against the transfer of Central American immigrant detainees from Texas to the city's Border Patrol station.

Patrick.mcgreevy@latimes.com

Twitter: @mcgreevy99

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