City's call on service by undocumented immigrants the right one

Undocumented immigrants appointed to city commissions
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Story highlights

  • California city named two undocumented immigrants to local government positions
  • Raul Reyes: City should be commended for letting them participate in civic affairs

Raul A. Reyes is an attorney and member of the USA Today board of contributors. Follow him on Twitter @RaulAReyes. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)A Southern California community made history this week, taking the landmark step of naming two undocumented immigrants to local government positions. The city of Huntington Park appointed Francisco Medina to its health and education commission and Julian Zatarain to the parks and recreation commission.

"Our population includes documented and undocumented immigrants, and I wanted to make sure everyone could participate," said Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias.
Unfortunately, not everyone shares her inclusive sentiments. The appointments of Medina and Zatarain have already generated a storm of controversy. Yet the criticism may be misguided. Increasing civic engagement is a good idea -- regardless of a person's immigration status.
    Raul Reyes
    To be clear, Medina and Zatarain are in the country illegally, but this is not a crime. Unlawful presence in the United States, barring a criminal violation, is a civil infraction. Medina, 29, is a college graduate. Zatarain, 21, is a college student who hopes to attend law school. Both men are Huntington Park residents, originally from Mexico; Zatarain came illegally at age 13.
    Allowing Medina and Zatarain to serve their community is a logical step for a city in California. The Golden State already allows undocumented immigrants to obtain driver's licenses and to practice law. This summer, the state Senate passed a bill allowing undocumented immigrants to access health care.
    These measures acknowledge the reality that, until our lawmakers tackle comprehensive immigration reform, we have a sizable undocumented population among us. Since California is home to the country's largest population of undocumented immigrants, it makes sense to find positive ways to bring people out of the shadows.
    Unlike other city commissioners, Medina and Zatarain will not be paid a monthly stipend. They have to pass background checks. They will only serve in an advisory role, and will not be permitted to vote on city policy.
    They will serve, in effect, as volunteers and their civic engagement should therefore be welcomed, not condemned.
    Huntington Park is more than 97% Latino, and is one of several communities southeast of Los Angeles that the Los Angeles Times says, "have long been entry points for immigrants from Mexico and Latin America -- a good portion arriving illegally."
    In part because of the presence of so many undocumented immigrants who cannot vote, civic participation is low. The Times noted that the turnout for a recent election in the neighboring town of Bell was 2%, while an election in nearby South Gate only brought out 3% of voters.
    Now here are Medina and Zatarain, who want to participate in local affairs -- for free -- and people are objecting to it.
    Consider that undocumented immigrants are often in the news for the wrong reasons. The recent shooting of Kate Steinle in San Francisco by an undocumented immigrant shocked the nation, and another undocumented immigrant has been accused of murder and attempted rape in Ohio
    Medina and Zatarain are the counterbalance to such stories. They simply want to help make their city a better place to live, and could serve as a critical bridge for the city of Huntington Park to its undocumented residents.
    Yet a glance at the L.A. Times comments section accompanying an article about Medina and Zatarain reveals many negative opinions about "amnesty" and "illegals." One commenter wrote, "Will the last person to leave the USA please remember to turn the lights off?"
    Sadly, these readers seem to be taking out frustration with our broken immigration system on the city of Huntington Park. If we were to ban undocumented immigrants from working, driving, renting apartments, serving in local government and other activities, then how can we complain that they fall into illegal activities? And no, mass deportation is not the answer, because that would be costly, wasteful and ineffective.
    The undocumented population in the U.S. is about 11 million, or roughly the equivalent of the state of Ohio. One analysis by the Center for American Progress found that it would cost about $285 billion over five years to remove all of our undocumented immigrants -- with no guarantee that our borders would remain secure. For now, practical, small measures seem to be our best way forward.
    There is nothing wrong with a local government reflecting the diversity of its community. Huntington Park should be commended for allowing undocumented immigrants to participate in civic affairs in a legal and productive way.