WESTLAKE : 500 Attend El Rescate Citizenship Drive
Salsa music blaring festively from loudspeakers belied the concerned expressions of many local residents as they milled about Terrace Park last weekend, shuffling through pamphlets and flyers at El Rescate immigrant center’s first citizenship fair and block party.
Despite the cheerful atmosphere Saturday, most of the 500 people who attended had come to seek ways to ensure their security as immigrants. Several expressed apprehension about the possible passage of the “Save Our State” initiative on the November ballot.
“I feel this law would be very inconvenient for people who come to this country and struggle to make a living. It would make life very difficult,” said Marlena Menendez, a Nicaraguan immigrant who has lived in the United States for 22 years, 17 with permanent-resident status.
The initiative calls for the exclusion of illegal immigrants from publicly funded health care, education and social welfare programs, and would require the administrators of those programs to verify resident status and report undocumented aliens seeking services to authorities.
Opponents of the initiative believe that it would set the stage for anti-immigrant discrimination in the future.
Menendez, of Pico-Union, is seeking U.S. citizenship largely because she believes it will give her an extra layer of protection.
“I believe (the initiative) is going to affect everyone who is Latino,” she said. “Once people see your face and see that you are Latino, they’re going to be against you.”
As the November election draws near, the fears of discrimination Menendez expressed also concern the staff at El Rescate, which has been serving the legal and socioeconomic needs of Latin American immigrants since 1980.
To help safeguard the rights of immigrants in the largely Latino communities of Westlake and Pico-Union, the center has stepped up its community outreach campaign to inform immigrants of ways to protect themselves, beginning with last weekend’s citizenship fair.
“We’re focusing more on the communities which are under attack,” said Tim Everett, director of legal services for El Rescate. “We’re trying to develop a forum here where people can come with questions and for referrals.”
One reason the center is pushing to inform immigrants how to apply for citizenship and permanent residence is that many of them are already eligible for one of the two, but do not pursue their rights because they are uninformed, Everett said.
“Many people qualify now, and have for a long time, but didn’t act on it because they didn’t know how or didn’t think they had enough money,” he said. “A lot of people who have immigrant rights will suffer under SOS because they don’t have the information” they need to formally make the rights work for them.
Catherine Pedroza, an outreach worker representing the Asian Pacific American Legal Center at the citizenship fair, said a similar lack of awareness exists in the city’s Asian communities. Her organization is increasing its efforts to make Asian immigrants aware of the initiative.
“A lot of people I’ve come in contact with have no exposure to SOS and the damage it can do,” Pedroza said. “The community doesn’t know. That’s the scary part.”
Jaime Flores, director of social services for El Rescate, believes one positive thing that has come out of the initiative is that many informed Latino immigrants --such as Menendez--are now taking greater interest in obtaining U.S. citizenship.
“People consider that with citizenship, they can’t be deported,” Flores said.
A Times poll conducted statewide in May found that 59% of registered voters would favor legislation calling for the same measures as the initiative, with 32% opposed and 9% undecided.