By Julian Schoen
Though immigration issues have caused heated national debate, Watsonville has taken a defiant stance against the nation’s immigration policy.
The city has recently refined a 1996 law encouraging police officials to notify illegal immigrants when federal deportation officers are threatening to raid.
The measure, which passed the city council last week in a 4-3 vote, was intended to create an autonomous atmosphere in the city, allowing undocumented individuals to come out of the shadows and live freely in Watsonville.
The bill still prevents police officers from asking individuals to prove their citizenship. Under the new reform, Watsonville has asked federal Immigration Control Enforcement (ICE) to formally cease and desist raids against the city’s undocumented citizens.
The bill also includes a sanctuary clause, which aims to quell the fears of undocumented immigrants by portraying Watsonville as a safe haven.
Greg Caput, a member on the Watsonville City Council, stated that the sanctuary clause is purely symbolic and does not provide amnesty.
“I don’t like having people live in fear,” Caput said. “Sweeping raids just focusing on undocumented workers is wrong.”
Caput, who voted in favor of the resolution, risked losing support from his voter base. A staunch conservative, Caput disregarded the traditional Republican agenda, favoring increased border security and deportation of illegal immigrants, in order to do what he felt was right.
“The decision was from the heart,” Caput said. “It’s fair, they’re here. They are law-abiding and have to support their families. They’re not hurting anybody; just leave them alone.”
Watsonville Mayor Manuel Bersamin celebrated the measure’s approval. Bersamin stated that Watsonville has a substantial immigrant population because it is based on an agricultural economy.
“Without the workers, the economy would not survive,” Bersamin said.
He went on to say that Watsonville is among many cities throughout California that have adopted this type of resolution.
“Our police force will not assist [the ICE],” Bersamin said. “We’re sending a message to the federal government to move forward on immigration reform. We need to do this. We need to have individuals feel safe in their own towns.”
Ryan Coonerty, vice mayor of Santa Cruz, advocates this policy. Santa Cruz has a similar law, he explained, that has been in effect for 20 years.
Coonerty stated that it was “vitally important” to have a good relationship with the Latino community and maintain a “welcoming” environment.
Yet there has been some fervor over whether or not the Santa Cruz and Watsonville laws are actually legal. Their terms motivate the police to not only ignore federal law, but to aid immigrants by warning them when ICE officials are near.
“We are not encouraging the police to break the law,” Coonerty said. “The city doesn’t have to cooperate with the federal government. It can pass its own laws.”
There are also questions relating to the law’s response to undocumented immigrants’ rights as workers, who still face long hours, little pay, and no benefits.
Agribusiness in California earns $34 billion a year, partly because of undocumented immigrant subsidization, according to Bersamin.
“Undocumented workers make this state profitable,” Bersamin said. “We in Watsonville are trying to scale the immigration issue on the human level, but businesses only want to hear how it will affect their pocketbooks.”