Huntington Park Still Roiling Over Appointment of Undocumented Immigrants
Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias (L) and Councilman Jhonny Pineda at a council meeting on Sept. 8. Officials continue to draw praise and protest after appointing two undocumented immigrants to city commissions. (Steven Cuevas/KQED)
Huntington Park’s main drag, Pacific Boulevard, was once a magnet for people from across South L.A.
Locals like Laura Herrera like to talk about how it once rivaled Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills when it comes to glitzy storefronts and upscale shoppers.
These days it caters to a largely working-class Latino clientele. Mexican bakeries and quinceañera shops sit alongside storefronts with window shingles offering legal services for immigrants.
At a popular local coffeehouse, morning commuters share space with retirees, students and wandering street musicians singing old Mexican ballads for spare change.
The cafe's name is Tierra Mia, or "my land" -- a fitting name.
Once a white enclave just a handful of streetcar stops from downtown Los Angeles, Huntington Park is now around 97 percent Latino. About half of the city’s 59,000 residents were born outside the U.S.
“I’m a daughter of an immigrant and I know how important it is to have a voice in government,” says Herrera.
She used to be one of those voices.
Herrera had just begun a second term as a city planning commissioner two months ago when the newly elected City Council decided to disband all active city commissions.
The council also took the controversial action of opening commission seats to people who live outside the city.
Herrera and other commissioners were informed they could reapply, but she says the writing was on the wall.
“We were removed,” says Herrera, who now intends to run for City Council in 2017. “(They said) there was a lack of good appointees, and that was very offensive to me.”
Among the new commissioners handpicked by a trio of young new council members were people who helped get them elected, including a campaign consultant who lives in another city and, most controversial of all, two young undocumented immigrants; 21-year-old Julian Zatarain and 28-year-old Francisco Medina.
I catch up with Medina by phone.
He says it’s hard to meet up in person because his schedule is so unpredictable. He's got to take work whenever it comes up.
“Whatever I can get, I can be working construction, tutoring for kids, cleaning,” he says.
Medina’s newest job is a seat on the Huntington Park Health and Education commission.
“I’m not going to be focusing just on undocumented students,” says Medina, who crossed into the U.S. without papers around 10 years ago. “We’re going to representing all the residents of Huntington Park.”
Medina is no stranger to civic participation. He interned for former state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo and also helped out on Cedillo’s campaign for L.A. City Council.
When asked if he knew that Medina was in the country illegally when he hired him, Cedillo says he does not verify the status of unpaid staffers. But he says he supports Medina’s appointment in Huntington Park, and he hopes it sets an example for other cities.
“Here’s a young man who has a lot to contribute,” says Cedillo. “He’s bilingual, and he’s reflective of his community, and so there’s no reason why we would not want him to continue his public service.”
The fresh-faced councilman who made the Huntington Park appointments, Jhonny Pineda, did not respond to numerous interview requests.
But in a press release, he said the appointments were a way to get undocumented residents more involved in city politics.
“The more participation, the more engagement, the more eyes and ears you have paying attention to city politics,” says Loyola Marymount University political science professor Fernando Guerra. “That will create much more transparency, much more responsiveness to the residents, including undocumented immigrants.”
In the patchwork of predominantly Latino communities in and around South L.A., voter turnout is dismally low, public meetings sparsely attended.
New immigrants may arrive without papers, from places where speaking out can be risky. They keep their heads down. It’s a good recipe for municipal corruption
The bordering city of Bell drew big headlines a few years ago when top officials were caught up in a salary corruption scheme.
And just next door in Huntington Park, public officials have also come under scrutiny for alleged, though much less serious, misconduct in recent years.
Former councilwoman Linda Caraballo worries this new council is cut from the same cloth.
“They’ve only been on the job less than six months and you have all this ruckus, you have all these people protesting,” says Caraballo, sitting beneath shade trees outside Huntington Park’s stately Mission-style City Hall.
Caraballo is talking about the carloads of anti-illegal immigration activists from out of town who have been crowding council chambers to protest the appointment of Medina and Zatarain.
Even though the decision to appoint Medina and Zatarain is final, recent public council sessions have devolved into heated, hours-long forums on the pros and cons of illegal immigration.
“(Opponents are) saying these appointments are unjust. I agree with that,” says Caraballo. “You have many documented people that are very well qualified that could have easily done those jobs. But they immediately went to their friends."
Medina says he’s heard the allegations of political favoritism and worse.
“Probably there’s a lot of corruption with Francisco Medina. I wonder how much money he’s going to get out of it,” he says, referring to the kinds of rumors apparently coursing through the city.
To help dampen the controversy, Medina and Zatarain agreed to do their jobs without pay, even though they’re eligible for a small stipend.
“That way there’s not an excuse to say, 'Oh, they’re taking resources from the city,' ” says Medina. “We’re just giving back to our own people.”
After several weeks of delay, Huntington Park’s newest city commissioners are set to be sworn in sometime next month.