Op-Ed: ‘Felons, Illegals and MS-13 Welcome!’

An undocumented Salvadoran immigrant says she is now afraid to go out on walks with her son in Huntington Park, Calif. on Feb. 22, 2017.
(Los Angeles Times)

In a couple of weeks, I plan to drive to Albuquerque because I’ve run out of green chile. On my way back, I sure hope to see signs that mock our status as a sanctuary state.

“Felons, Illegals and MS-13 Welcome!” read metal plaques posted on I-15 and I-40 East around New Year’s Day, just below our official, poppy-emblazoned “Welcome to California!” greeting. CalTrans quickly took them down, but not before the anonymous Know-Nothing crack drew worldwide attention.

It’s been hilarious to see the snowflake right triggered over moves by the state Legislature and cities like San Francisco and Maywood to create sanctuaries for immigrants. And it ain’t over: Even though Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen just announced she’d like federal prosecutors to charge public officials who stymie la migra, expect more politicians in the Golden State this year to stand up for residents targeted for deportation.

I also found it telling that whoever put up the fake highway signs included the name of a gang that has become an obsession for President Trump. He and Atty. Gen. Jeff Sessions have vowed to crush MS-13 in the United States and deport members back to El Salvador, the gang’s stronghold — never mind that a similar move in the 1990s is precisely what made it the transnational terror that it is today.


It’s been hilarious to see the snowflake right triggered over moves by the state Legislature and cities to create sanctuaries for immigrants.

Along with alleged gang members, Trump wants to deport many more Salvadorans: He plans to rescind Temporary Protected Status by next year to more than 250,000 Salvadoran refugees (along with Haitians and Nicaraguans). But the fixation on MS-13 as a symbol of Everything Wrong with Latino Immigration, coupled with the end of TPS, are just the latest insults against Salvadorans in California, who number about 700,000 and represent our second-largest Latino group.

They first came in large numbers in the 1980s during the Salvadoran Civil War, only to get denied political refugee status by the Reagan administration. Non-Latinos wrongly assumed their narrative was the same as Mexicans; Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans alike ridiculed Salvadorans for their distinctive Spanish, their food and, well, for not being Mexican.

They persisted and forged new lives in this country, just like all previous immigrant groups. Yet to this day, most non-Salvadorans ignorantly reduce them to just two things: pupusas and gangs.


That’s changing only slowly, as a new generation of Salvadoran Americans pushes to get their stories heard in Latino and mainstream media.

One example is Wendy Carrillo, whose voice I woke up with for years when she hosted the late, great “Knowledge is Power” Sunday morning radio show on Power 106. She just became one of the few Central Americans ever to serve in the California State Assembly after winning a special election late last year.

Carrillo and fellow Los Angeles Democrat Miguel Santiago — whose district includes Pico Union, the Ellis Island for Salvadoran and other Central Americans in Los Angeles — plan to introduce legislation that would set aside $10 million to assist Salvadorans at risk of deportation. I’m sure more than a few non-Salvadorans will question why the state should help such a specific population. But that’s not how Carrillo sees it.


“Providing services for vulnerable members of our communities targeted by the inhumane policies of the Trump administration is just the right thing to do,” said the assemblywoman, whose parents brought her to this country without papers as a child. She referred to a report by the Center for Migration Research at the University of Kansas, which found that more than 94% of male and 82% of female TPS holders from El Salvador contributed to the labor force (only 63% of the general American population did the same). “They’ve worked hard to achieve the American Dream and contribute to California’s economy. It’s senseless to rip them from their families, jobs and communities.”

Supporting the Carrillo-Santiago measure is not just righteous, it’s a callback to our history. During the 1980s, faith groups and colleges across California housed and fed Central American refugees. As a response, Los Angeles made the historic decision to declare itself a sanctuary city in 1985 — although it rescinded the resolution and offered one that dropped the word “sanctuary” after Immigration and Naturalization Service commissioner Harold Ezell threatened to cut off federal funds. (Ezell would later say that immigrants in the country illegally “shouldn’t be deported; they should be deep-fried.”)

In an op-ed for this paper after that vote, then-Councilman Michael Woo compared the plight of Central Americans to that of Jews under Nazi Germany. “We have learned from those experiences,” he wrote, “and the vow of ‘never again’ should apply today in this case as well.”

The “Welcome to California” prank signs show not enough of us learned that lesson. That’s why I do hope one is up there when I pass I-40 — so I can knock it down and throw it alongside Proposition 187 and the State of Jefferson in the trash heap of Bad California Ideas. One can dream, right?


Twitter: @GustavoArellano

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