At a time when communities across the nation are considering efforts to crack down on illegal immigration, one small city south of downtown Los Angeles is charting a different course.
In Maywood, where 96% of the residents are Latino, and more than half are foreign-born, the City Council has vowed to make the municipality a “sanctuary city” for illegal immigrants, and over the last few months it has set out to prove it.
First, the city eliminated the Police Department’s traffic division after complaints that officers unfairly targeted illegal immigrants. Then it made it much more difficult for police to tow cars whose owners didn’t have driver’s licenses, a practice that affected mostly undocumented people who could not obtain licenses.
In January, the City Council passed a resolution opposing a proposed federal law that would criminalize illegal immigration and make local police departments enforce immigration law. Now, some in the community are pushing to rename one of the city’s elementary schools after former Mexican President Benito Juarez and debating measures to improve the lives of illegal immigrants.
Maywood leaders say they hope their actions will serve as a counterpoint to other cities, such as Costa Mesa in Orange County, that have moved forward with crackdowns on illegal immigrants and groups like the Minutemen border patrols.
“You just couldn’t keep quiet. I think we needed to amplify the debate by saying that no human being is illegal,” said Councilman Felipe Aguirre, 53. “These people are here ... making your clothes, shining your shoes and taking care of your kids. And now you want to develop this hypocritical policy?”
But Maywood’s actions have made the town a lightning rod for criticism on conservative radio shows and websites. On KFI’s “John and Ken Show,” the host blasted Mayor Thomas Martin for making the city a “magnet for illegal immigration.”
Even within the city, the stance is controversial. Longtime residents believe the City Council has gone too far and is embracing lawlessness. They also question whether Maywood can handle more illegal immigrants.
“I’m afraid we’re testing the limits of the law, and that’s dangerous,” said longtime resident J. Luis Ceballos, 52. “I think there is a danger of people thinking that they can do whatever they want.”
Maywood is an unlikely city to be a political trailblazer. With a population pegged officially at about 29,000 -- but actually closer to 45,000 when illegal residents are factored in, according to city officials -- Maywood is a compact 1.2 square miles of tightly packed homes and apartments, strip malls and mom-and-pop shops amid the factories and industrial businesses that dot southeast Los Angeles County.
The city was developed in the 1920s and ‘30s as a working-class bedroom community for factory workers of L.A.'s industrial belt. But like the neighboring cities of Bell Gardens and Huntington Park, Maywood saw an influx of immigration as the area’s factories began to close in the 1970s.
The campaign for immigrant rights has its roots in a long-brewing political divide between newer immigrants and older immigrants, who consider themselves more “Americanized,” said Ceballos, who came to the United States as an illegal immigrant from Jalisco, Mexico, 37 years ago and is a longtime Maywood political observer.
“Many people who came here a long time ago feel that they had to sacrifice a lot more and do with a lot less than people who come to the country now,” Ceballos said.
This discord was evident at a recent City Council meeting. On one side sat a group of newer immigrants who addressed the council in Spanish. On the other side sat a few of the city’s longtime Anglo residents and Latinos who spoke in English.
At one point, when Anglo resident Kathleen Larsen spoke out angrily against naming an elementary school after Juarez, the audience members sitting behind her applauded. Most of them were Latino, and many were immigrants.
Then Oscar Corona stood up and asked why the person who usually translates the meeting into Spanish wasn’t there. He accused Councilman Sam Pena of laughing at him and demanded that he speak to him in Spanish.
“Speak to me in Spanish, please,” the 44-year-old forklift operator said, his voice rising. “Speak to me in Spanish, Mr. Pena. You know how to speak it.”
Pena was part of the old guard who ran Maywood until last November’s election swept in the pro-immigrant-rights slate. Now he is in a minority of two on the five-member council.
For years under the previous majority, the city’s police set up sobriety checkpoints that began in the afternoon. But the roundups also nabbed many drivers who simply didn’t have licenses, most of them illegal immigrants.
The city had a 30-day car impound period, which resulted in large fines for the immigrants. The city stopped the checkpoints amid complaints, but many illegal immigrants were still being stopped and having their cars impounded because they had driven without licenses.
In many cities that might have been seen as normal, even expected. But in a city where so many residents were undocumented, the practice was controversial.
Aguirre, who runs immigration service center Comite Pro-Uno, became a major critic of the city. Activist groups and the St. Rose of Lima Church joined him in the fight.
Together they led opposition to the towing, saying that the city’s real motive was to raise money on the backs of its large illegal immigrant population.
“People felt like they were being persecuted,” said Father David Velazquez of St. Rose. “Hundreds of cars were being taken away.”
A coalition formed that essentially supported a slate of candidates, including Aguirre. They won in the November election, in which the city’s treatment of immigrants was a major issue.
“They said, ‘Sam is anti-immigrant, he’s not with our people,’ ” Pena said. “My parents are immigrants.... So I sympathize.”
The election had a record turnout: more than 3,500 out of 5,800 registered voters.
After taking office at the end of last year, the new council quickly dismantled the city’s traffic department. They stopped towing. They allowed people without driver’s licenses -- mostly undocumented workers -- to get permits for overnight parking.
The council also rescinded a law that prohibited residents from erecting shade canopies at their homes. The law, passed by the old council, was seen as a slap at undocumented residents who used the canopies to create more usable living space.
The actions have been met with cheers by some of the city’s illegal immigrants.
Martha Montiel lives with five family members in a two-bedroom dwelling after moving from Mexico three years ago. Her family members have twice seen their cars impounded because they didn’t have licenses. Once, they lost a car because a police officer pulled them over for having a large air freshener hanging in a window. Each time, it cost $1,800 to get the car back -- a sum that took weeks to raise.
Montiel is pleased that the city is trying to help illegal immigrants. “It’s good because people try to drive respectfully, even if they don’t have licenses,” Montiel said as she gathered jugs of water from a Maywood shop.
Montiel, who works at a clothing factory, said she is so grateful for the City Council’s action that she plans to put the freshener back in her car.
But other residents are worried about the direction Maywood is taking -- and where it might end up.
“If you don’t have a driver’s license, you shouldn’t drive,” said Enrique Curiel, 51, who has picketed against the church’s involvement in the matter.
But Maywood’s actions are being closely followed by others, including predominantly Latino immigrant communities. Several -- including Pomona, Huntington Park and Bell Gardens -- followed Maywood’s lead by opposing a bill in Congress that would make it a crime for organizations or agencies to assist illegal immigrants. Aguirre and the council majority vowed to defy the rules if they become federal law.
“My hat’s off to them,” said Pomona Councilman Marcos Robles. “Maywood took the lead, which was very progressive on their part.”
Aguirre knows the spotlight isn’t about to move off his town.
“I spoke at a meeting of the League of California Cities,” he said. “And this is all anyone wanted to talk to me about. I guess it sort of had an impact.”
Times staff writer Kelly-Anne Suarez contributed to this report.
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Median age: 26.4
Population 25 and older with less than 9th grade education: 47%
Median household income: $33,937
Sources: Claritas, ESRI