Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Immigrants Rally in Waukegan

Though the fight for immigration reform is dead in Congress (for the time being), local residents are fighting to prevent an ordinance in Waukegan, Illinois that would give local law enforcement the ability to enforce immigration laws.

The city council in Waukegan, yesterday, voted to reject submitting an application to the immigration officials in order to be given the authority to enforce federal laws. Though the immigrant activists were successful, this article explains why they’re still angry.



Protesters don't sway council
Deportation initiative funding to be sought

By Andrew L. Wang
Tribune staff reporter

July 17, 2007, 12:11 AM CDT

Waukegan became the latest microcosm of a nation split on immigration Monday as thousands of people descended on the far north suburb to protest a controversial program that would allow local police to initiate deportation proceedings for immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

In the end, the City Council declined by a 7-2 vote to reconsider its decision to apply for the federal program, leaving Latino activists angry, but heartened that they had gotten their message out and drawn a crowd to the suburbs.

"This is ground zero for us," said Ramon Becerra, regional head of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement. He said the techniques his organization used in Waukegan—getting information out quickly on Spanish language radio stations, chartering buses, distributing flyers to pro-Latino businesses and threatening a boycott of others—are templates for his group and others to make their voices heard when they feel local officials aren't listening.

About 3,000 people attended the 5 p.m. rally outside City Hall, according to Lake County Sheriff Mark Curran. Chartered buses came from Chicago, Elgin, Wheeling and Cicero. On Monday morning, outraged callers flooded two Chicago-based Spanish radio shows.

But it wasn't just the Latino groups who attracted activists from elsewhere. Among the leaders of the anti-illegal immigration protesters was William Gheen of North Carolina, president of Americans for Legal Immigration. He said the debate in suburbs such as Waukegan is critical because their leaders aren't yet beholden to minority interests.

"Chicago's too far gone right now," he said. "Chicago is the next L.A."

But he said the debate isn't really about Latinos or any particular group.

"This isn't about diversity, this is about the law. . . . If you do not have existing laws enforced, then you want the downfall of the republic," Gheen said.

Not everyone engaged in the debate was from out of town. First in line to get a ticket for Monday's City Council meeting was Karen Van Heirseele, a Waukegan resident of 22 years who is in favor of the plan, referred to as 287(g) for short, after a section of the federal Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act. She was not happy that so many outsiders were weighing in on the decision—even those who agreed with her.

"I don't see where people outside of our city have the right to come here and tell our City Council how to run our city," she said. "They don't see the local goings-on. They don't have children here, they don't see the schools, they aren't part of the community."

Earlier in the day, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund filed for a temporary restraining order after learning that the city planned to limit attendance at the meeting. Citing public safety, city officials required tickets that were only available at a city office two miles from City Hall.

MALDEF said that location would be too "inconvenient" for some to visit because it was not located near public transportation, and filed for the order on behalf of three Waukegan plaintiffs.

Lake County Judge Mitchell Hoffman ordered city officials to distribute half of the 400 tickets at City Hall, which is accessible by public transportation.

The meeting capped off a nearly monthlong period that started inauspiciously, with no activists from either side attending a June 18 meeting when the council voted to authorize Police Chief William Biang to apply for the program.

City and police officials have said the program would allow some officers to start deportation proceedings for immigrants—legal or illegal—convicted of serious crimes such as murder, rape and drug-related felonies. Those officials have said the goal is to rid the city of criminals, not persecute immigrants who live within the law.

But opposition quickly grew, as thousands of Latinos turned out for public meetings and protests. Their leaders said the program could lead to police abuses against Latinos, and make undocumented immigrants reluctant to report crime.

Sparring rhetoric turned to dueling boycotts, as Latino activists marked businesses that disapproved of 287(g) with orange fliers and discouraged people from shopping at stores that didn't show the sign. Their counterparts encouraged the like-minded on Sunday to avoid shops that displayed the sign. The City Council announced it would reconsider the issue.

The debate continued at Monday's protest where activists, separated into pro and con by a wall of traffic barriers, carried signs and U.S. flags and chanted or yelled over bullhorns and wireless microphones outside City Hall.

A heavy police presence, including mounted and K-9 officers, made sure the two sides didn't mingle.

On the north end were about 250 people who favored the city applying for the federal immigration certification, including Gheen.

More than 2,000 protesters on the south end included Miguel Arizmendi, 47, president of Waukegan's Tonatico Social Club, named after the Mexican town from which many Waukegan immigrants hail.

Arizmendi, who said he came to Waukegan 30 years ago, said he has been pulled over by police who gave what seemed like flimsy reasons, such as a noisy muffler, and let him go as soon as they saw his immigration papers were in order.

"If police are going to do immigration jobs, we're going to be in trouble," he said.

"For any reason, they can stop you. Anything you do, the police are going to be right behind you."

After Monday's vote, Jose Guzman, the Waukegan head of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, said he felt betrayed by aldermen for whom he'd campaigned.

"I feel like these people stabbed me in my back," he said after the vote.

The battle over the program comes at a critical time for Waukegan, which for years has tried to reinvent itself and put its industrial past behind it in favor of high-end development on its waterfront. The city that has long been home to working class whites has seen an influx of immigrants from Mexico and Central America over the last three decades.

U.S. census estimates from 2005 indicate that more than half of the city's residents may be of Latino heritage, but that likely is an underestimate given the uncertain size of Waukegan's undocumented population.

Waukegan joins the northwest suburb Carpentersville as being among the local hot spots in the illegal immigration debate.

Carpentersville has been mired in debate since fall, when two trustees introduced a proposed ordinance designed to fine landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and to deny licenses to businesses that employ those immigrants. The idea was put on hold, but the village also has applied for 287(g), and in June the Village Board voted 5-2 to make English the official language.

About 40 percent of the village's 37,000 residents are Latino.

Residents of other suburbs in the Chicago area, from Elgin and Cicero to Berwyn, have complained about conditions often associated with growing Latino populations, such as crowded classrooms and many families sharing the same home.

What many of the suburbs have in common is a quickly growing immigrant population and political structure where Latinos have little political clout.

With the influx of immigrants reshaping the town, elected officials have fought to preserve the status quo and, sometimes, please their largely white voting base.

Becerra said the debate over immigration is really about economics: Undocumented immigrants come to America to support their children, forcing locals to share what they've thought of as theirs alone.

"People have been living [in the suburbs] for generations. People here are not resilient. They don't know how to adapt to changes," he said.

Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune


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