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Undocumented immigrants picked for city posts say U.S. 'progressing'

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Story highlights

  • Julian Zatarian, 21, says his city commission appointment is 'historic'
  • Francisco Medina, 29, says his appointment sends 'a great message'
  • Both undocumented immigrants won't be paid in Huntington Park

Huntington Park, California (CNN)The two young men from Mexico contend they are role models at the forefront of U.S. history, but critics denounce them as illegal immigrants whose seating on city commissions is wrong.

Julian Zatarian, 21, and Francisco Medina, 29, were appointed to advisory commissions this week even though they are undocumented immigrants, becoming what the sponsoring councilman calls among the first for local governments nationwide.
    At the vanguard in this Southern California town are Zatarian, now a junior college student who graduated at the top of his class at Huntington Park High, and Medina, a graduate of a California state college who works with working-class immigrants and recently interned for a state legislator.
    "I believe this is a historic moment. It is the first time that we have undocumented persons who are taking positions of this magnitude in a city, and that shows our society is progressing," Zatarian told CNN en Espanol.
    "It's a great message that we're sending not only here in Huntington Park but in other cities as well," Medina added.

    'You ought to be a citizen'

    Zatarian will now be providing guidance to the city as a member of the Parks and Recreation Commission, an advisory post.
    Medina will be doing the same as a member of the Health and Education Commission, also an advisory position in this Los Angeles-area city of 58,000 people who are 97% Hispanic.
    The debate over immigration
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    The debate over immigration 01:46
    Councilman Jhonny Pineda made such appointments without violating federal laws by ensuring that the two men's service is voluntary without pay.
    The city commission posts typically pay $75 a month.
    But several residents excoriated the decision, saying it questioned the value of citizenship.
    "I don't think it's right," said Rosa Maria Zambrano. "I guess in my view that you ought to be a citizen in order to represent the city well. What if they were suddenly deported or something, and they don't do their job?"
    Said another resident, Linda Caraballo: "This is not helping the community. It is further dividing the community."
    Some residents are starting a petition drive to seek the resignation of Pineda, resident Betty Ramata said.

    'A city of hope'

    Despite a public outcry at a City Council meeting this week, Pineda pressed ahead with the appointments -- a first for California, he said.
    During his run for office, Pineda promised voters he would create opportunities for the city's undocumented immigrants. Some have accused him of appointing the two men because they helped his campaign.
    An immigrant himself at age 13 and a farm worker as a child, Pineda said he was proud to make the appointments, which show how Huntington Park is "a city of opportunity and a city of hope" regardless of citizenship.
    "I decided to name these two people because of their history of service. For several years, they have been organizing in the community, and they have never expected anything in return from anybody," Pineda said.
    "When I decided to nominate them, I told them that the work they'll be doing is voluntary. We can't pay them, and they accepted," Pineda said.

    'Respect the viewpoint of everyone'

    Medina and Zatarian acknowledge the storm of criticism they're facing.
    "I respect their viewpoint," Zatarian said.
    But, he added, "As an organizer and community leader, we always have to respect the viewpoint of everyone." Zatarian, who came to the United States in 2007, attends two-year Santa Monica College and wants to attend law school.
    Medina, a graduate of California State University, Dominguez Hills with a bachelor's in sociology and Chicano studies, said his appointment set an example for the rest of the country.
    "More people are going to realize that if you prepare every day, if you study, if you learn the laws of this beautiful country, you will be able to overcome, and it all will be in the preparation of the individual," Medina said.