Dozens of residents from Huntington Beach's Oak View community voiced concerns at a town hall meeting Wednesday about reports of increased national deportations following an executive order calling for a more aggressive approach to finding and arresting people who are in the country illegally.
Since President Trump signed the order Jan. 25, reports detailing Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, deportation raids on undocumented immigrants have spread online, causing panic among immigrant populations.
Victor Valladares, a cofounder of ComUNIDAD, said in a phone interview that the group organized the town hall after receiving calls from fearful residents of the Oak View neighborhood, which has a high concentration of Latinos.
"People were scared to go out," Valladares said.
He said residents worried that if they contacted police about a crime, they could be arrested and deported.
"We want the community to be reassured that it's OK to contact the police," Valladares said. "They are not immigration officers."
Police Chief Robert Handy echoed that sentiment at the meeting, held at the Oak View Family Resource Center on Oak Lane. He told the 100 or so in the packed gymnasium that his department "does not work for the federal government" but rather it enforces state laws and local ordinances.
Handy said the department has plenty of other worries in the area than to focus on immigration.
As residents continued to question Handy about how closely his department works with the federal government, the police chief made it clear that it only works with federal agencies like ICE when serious crimes are involved.
Members of the audience showed that they were not all of one mind.
Raymond Herrera, an activist who supports strict immigration enforcement, told Handy that "federal law trumps state law" so the department should be imposing Trump's new action.
"What gives you the power to be in denial of federal law?" Herrera said. "What authorizes you to subvert the laws to protect the people?"
Handy responded, "The state of California and the law of Huntington Beach."
The crowd applauded.
Maintaining a close relationship with the residents of the Oak View community, historically one of the more crime-plagued areas in the city, has been important to Handy since he was named chief in December 2013.
In November 2014, Handy introduced a new policing program to reduce juvenile- and gang-related crime in Oak View. Eight officers were assigned to the community to act as liaisons between the department and the residents.
The close ties with the community seem to have worked, according to Handy, since crime there had dropped 20% by 2016.
On Thursday, Valladares said residents were feeling relieved following the town hall.
"It calmed a lot of nerves," he said. "[Handy] reassured us that [his officers] are not federal government workers, and if people are going to call police, they are not going to be questioned about their immigrant status."
This is the second town hall that ComuUNIDAD has organized in about a year with Handy.
Handy addressed public concerns in the Oak View community early last year after ICE made an appearance in the area while searching for shooting suspects. Valladares said Handy assuaged the fears of the community then.
Valladares said Oak View residents are very appreciative of the close relationship with the department.
"We welcome the police with open arms," Valladares said.