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‘A City of Sanctuary’ : Council Committee Sees L.A. as a Haven for Guatemalans and Salvadorans Fleeing Persecution

Times Staff Writer

In a move hailed by immigration groups, a Los Angeles City Council committee unanimously adopted a resolution Friday declaring Los Angeles “a city of sanctuary” for Guatemalan and Salvadoran refugees fleeing political persecution in their own countries.

In forwarding the resolution to the full council, the Intergovernmental Relations Committee said an individual’s immigration or citizenship status should not be a consideration in whether to provide public services. The committee also reaffirmed a Los Angeles Police Department policy that limits police cooperation in turning illegal aliens over to federal authorities.

Under Police Department policy, a person cannot be arrested merely for violation of immigration laws, and undocumented aliens cannot be sent to the Immigration and Naturalization Service unless they are “booked for multiple misdemeanor offenses, a high-grade misdemeanor or a felony.” Examples of high-grade misdemeanors include some categories of prostitution and driving under the influence of alcohol when the offenses do not constitute felonies.

If the move is approved by the council, the city will have a sweeping refugee policy for the first time, committee Chairman Michael Woo said, encouraging the estimated 250,000 Salvadoran and Guatemalan refugees in Los Angeles to report crime as well as violations of building and safety codes and rent control laws without fear of being deported.

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“Hopefully, this will make a major difference in terms of the climate of fear out there among refugees,” Woo said.

By declaring Los Angeles a sanctuary city, Woo said, the committee also states that refugees who are seeking political asylum after escaping war in El Salvador and Guatemala are welcome “as long as they are law-abiding.”

Woo said the protection sought by the resolution would extend only to refugees from those countries and not to the large numbers of people entering illegally from Mexico, other Latin American countries or Asia. The Police Department policy, however, applies to all immigrants.

The sanctuary statement is largely a symbolic one because aliens here illegally are not immune from federal prosecution. But sanctuary workers responded with a standing ovation when committee members Woo, Hal Bernson and Robert Farrell adopted the resolution after a long debate.

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“I think that the impact of the symbolism is so powerful that it almost outweighs everything else,” said the Rev. Donald L. Smith, a Presbyterian minister who works with refugees.

“I think that the resolution itself, the declaration itself, is a signal to the refugees who are here among us that the L.A. City Council will be supportive of them and their presence here in order to try to eliminate their fear of deportation,” said Sister Jo’Ann De Quattro, sanctuary chairwoman for the Southern California Ecumenical Council’s Interfaith Task Force on Central America.

Immigration service officials, who consider most of the Central American refugees economic and not political refugees, expressed disappointment in the vote and said the council is ignoring an established asylum process.

“We feel that (the council action) is very inappropriate and unnecessary,” said John Bellurdo, director of congressional and public affairs for the service’s western region, adding that its members are supporting the “illegal entry of aliens into the United States without proper inspection.”

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Sanctuary opponents are hoping to persuade the full council to abandon the resolution, and sanctuary supporters admit that they could encounter stiff opposition when a vote is taken, perhaps as early as next week.

“It looks pretty good,” Woo said, “but frankly, this is a controversial matter where votes can change quickly. . . . So it looks pretty good, but I’m not overconfident about it.”

During Friday’s hearing, the committee was initially split over the resolution, with Farrell seeking a tougher stance and Bernson expressing concern over wording that accused the federal government of unfairly denying political asylum to Salvadoran and Guatemalan applicants.

As a compromise, some of the statements against the Reagan Administration’s immigration policy were removed, but the final text includes support for a change in federal policy that would suspend deportation of Salvadoran and Guatemalan political refugees.

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The West Hollywood City Council unanimously approved a resolution Thursday night making that city a sanctuary for Central American refugees. The resolution described both the United States and the city as a “haven for all refugees of religious, political and sexual persecution” and directed city departments and employees not to assist in investigations or arrests of Salvadoran, Guatemalan or other refugees by federal officials “to the extent legally possible.”

Mayor John Heilman, who sponsored the resolution with Councilwoman Helen Albert, said that the city cannot stop the immigration service from enforcing federal law and that the purpose of the resolution is mainly symbolic. He added, however, that because of the dangers faced by immigrants forced to return to countries that they fled for fear of their personal safety, “we are directing the city staff not to assist anyone in the investigation of people for the violation of immigration laws.

“Our people will not cooperate with the INS unless they are legally obligated to do so,” the mayor said.

Among those whom the resolution seeks to help protect, Heilman said, are a number of people employed by hotels in West Hollywood.

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