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Standing up for Petaluma’s immigrants


“Six hundred miles to that Mexican border — they chase us like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves”

— Woody Guthrie, “Deportee”

When Woody Guthrie wrote his famous protest song lamenting the plight of California’s migrant farmworkers who, under Congressional authorization, were brought here during World War II to solve the problem of severe labor shortages, he could not have foreseen how California’s agricultural economy would one day become entirely dependent upon foreign labor. Today, the growing and harvesting of the state’s crops, including wine grapes, is achieved principally by citizens from Mexico and other Central American countries who are not legally authorized to be here.

Thanks to the labor furnished by a majority of the estimated 2.3 million undocumented immigrants here, California is able to produce nearly half of the nations’ fruits, vegetables and nuts, as well as a very large share of America’s livestock and dairy products.

Some of those responsible for keeping the state’s $48 billion agricultural industry humming live right here in Petaluma, and many have children who attend local schools. One of those is 20-year-old Hector Jimenez, a student at Santa Rosa Junior College, whose parents brought him to Sonoma County from Oaxaca, Mexico when he was 1. Jimenez receives benefits under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), part of an Obama-era program that offers legal protection to children illegally brought into the country by their parents. DACA recipients like Jimenez, who said he hopes to attend university next year, worry that President Donald Trump might soon follow through on his threat to abolish the program, which could lead to his deportation to a country he has never known.

California’s undocumented immigrants are here because the state’s economy relies upon their labor, and because the U.S. government has failed to enact comprehensive immigration reform to equitably address the matter. Instead of leading an immigration reform effort, which would require actual leadership and hard work, Trump recklessly signed executive orders last month directing the unfunded construction of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, boosting border patrol forces and dramatically increasing the number of immigration enforcement officers to conduct deportations.

The president’s foolish decrees, coupled with coast-to-coast crackdowns over the last week by immigration officials, have sent shock waves through Petaluma’s immigrant community whose families now face the very real threat of being torn apart.

Given the Petaluma Valley’s reliance on the hard work, family ethos and the many community contributions from the area’s sizable Hispanic population, this is deeply unsettling news. Whether for humanitarian or economic reasons, it’s clear to most in our community that the policies being put forth by the Trump Administration are wrong and should be opposed.

“Sanctuary city” is a term making headlines these days about municipalities which openly declare opposition to enforcing federal immigration laws unless violent crimes and other threats to public safety are present. According to the LA Times, there are about 400 such sanctuary cities in America.

Cities declare themselves sanctuaries for a variety of reasons – among them is to reassure the otherwise law-abiding undocumented locals that they don’t have to live entirely in the shadows; local law enforcement isn’t interested in their immigration status. It’s meant to send a message that, in the eyes of local government, they and their families are members of the community and will be treated as such.

Last week, more than 200 people crowded into City Hall to ask the Petaluma City Council to adopt such a policy, and a subcommittee was formed to develop a formal resolution to be considered on Feb. 27. A similar pro-sanctuary showing took place recently at council meetings in Sonoma and Santa Rosa, with the latter council stopping short of using the word “sanctuary,” and instead resolving to declare Santa Rosa an “indivisible city.”

Petaluma’s newly appointed Police Chief Ken Savano was on hand at the meeting and noted, reassuringly, that local law enforcement doesn’t and won’t be asking residents about their immigration status. Savano said Petaluma already complies with the California Trust Act, prohibiting law enforcement “from detaining prisoners at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) unless a probable cause hearing has been held and a federal warrant issued; exceptions are allowed for prisoners who have committed violent felonies.”

President Trump has threated to withhold federal funding from communities that adopt the controversial “sanctuary” status as a way to punish cities and counties that refuse to comply with his draconian edicts, but there seems little likelihood that Petaluma would lose significant funding given that Trump’s threats violate the state’s Constitutional rights to sovereignty under the Tenth Amendment. Also, the only funds the federal government could legally take away would be law enforcement grants, which again is unlikely given Trump’s strong support for police.

If Petaluma already refuses to require documentation for non-violent offenders, isn’t the adoption of the so-called “sanctuary” status just symbolic?

Not necessarily. Words have meaning; message is everything. There’s nothing merely symbolic in telling besieged members of our community: “We’ve got your back.” And there’s nothing ephemeral about city leaders speaking out for the city’s voiceless.

In the end, it’s a simple question: Does Petaluma want to stand with its hard-working undocumented neighbors – or simply stand by?

While they’re chased like outlaws, like rustlers, like thieves.