After an eight-hour meeting which saw more than a thousand residents turn out to protest and emotions run high, the Santa Maria City Council voted 3-2 late Thursday night to uphold the development permit for an Immigration and Customs Enforcement facility.
Mayor Alice Patino and Councilmember Terri Zuniga cast the dissenting votes.
“We all took an oath when we were elected to support and defend the federal, state and city law,” said Councilmember Bob Orach, who made the motion to uphold the Planning Commission’s Feb. 5 approval of the facility’s development permit.
The decision means the project is essentially cleared of local government obstacles and the developer is free to move forward with the construction process. A representative of the architectural firm tapped for the project told the gathering they could begin construction in a few weeks.
“I think that we should end the trauma and the discord in our community now, that we should do what we were elected to do, which is to hear from our community, address their concerns and do what makes the best sense for all of us,” Zuniga said before the vote was taken. “This facility is not going to add anything of significance to our community, and the detriment of having it here could be great.”
Gloria Acosta, a representative of the League of United Latin American Citizens, one of four groups which appealed the permit and prompted Thursday’s hearing, said the organization’s lawyers will consider legal action against the city as a result of the vote.
Jorge Gil, a Guadalupe resident who turned out to oppose the facility being built, said the vote was “a foregone conclusion.” He said the council didn’t consider that undocumented immigrants are all technically criminals, and that because ICE deports criminals, that could include a very large section of the Santa Maria Valley.
ICE has maintained that the facility, to be built at 740 West Century St., will be used primarily as a transfer station for convicted undocumented criminals who are picked up from jails and prisons in San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties and taken to Los Angeles for deportation hearings.
The Enforcement and Removal Operations office has operated out of the federal prison in Lompoc since 1996, where it occupies trailers that were meant to be temporary. The office’s location inside prison grounds has meant keeping detainees waiting outside in a van while employees do their paperwork.
The four appellants argued that the Planning Commission erred when it made the findings necessary to grant the facility’s permit. Some of the errors they pointed to included finding that the office wouldn’t be detrimental to the safety of the neighborhood and that it wouldn’t require a new traffic light.
“Studies have shown that if the county or city is seen as an arm of ICE, citizens will be less likely to ... report crimes,” said Hazel Davalos, speaking on behalf of the appellant Community Initiatives for Visiting Immigrants in Confinement.
Emotion overcame some of the appellants as they asserted that ICE’s presence would divide the city and create danger in the neighborhoods surrounding the building.
“We’re not here to fight with each other,” Acosta said through the beginnings of tears. “We’re here as citizens. We’re here in collaboration with each other, and that’s what we ask. The city of Santa Maria has always been known to sit together. The city of Santa Maria has always been known to have open arms to newcomers. Why are we changing that?”
The meeting’s public comment period lasted for about two hours and saw about 45 speakers, all of which opposed the facility being built. Speakers included businesspeople, farmworkers, homeowners and community organizers. Multiple people asserted that ICE arrests more than just criminals.
“I was detained back in 2003 by ICE ... and I’m not a criminal,” said Sergio Zepeda, president of the Latino Business and Community Council. “What happened was my work visa expired.”
Another man told the story of a person he knows who has been arrested for stealing cars. He said the man commits crimes because his parents were deported.
“He doesn’t have his parents to guide him to a better life,” he said, speaking through a translator.
Others appealed to the council’s morals.
“Obviously this is a moral decision, besides being legal or not legal,” said Esperanza Salazar, a representative from LULAC. “So keep in mind that we all came from ... immigrant families.”
One man said the presence of the agency in Santa Maria could be enough to make him move.
“If they build a building here I may have to leave with my kids,” he said through a translator. “I wouldn’t want them to suffer. If I have to struggle and I am an adult, imagine what they would go through as little kids.”
Deputy Field Office Director David Marin said that ICE would make the community more safe, not less.
“We feel that the security presence ... would benefit citizens and non-citizens alike,” he said.
Marin reiterated that ICE does not perform roundups and that its priorities are to deport the most dangerous criminals.
As he was speaking, Gil stood up with a sign and shouted repeatedly, “We want ICE out of our community,” as the crowd clapped. Police officers escorted him outside as Patino asked for the audience to respect speakers.
Architect Bruce Fraser argued that contrary to what Orcutt resident and appellant Scott Fina said, the ICE building would primarily be office space. Fina argued that while most of the square footage may be devoted to features such as meeting and storage rooms, the office’s main function would still be to detain and process criminals.
In the convention room at the Fairpark, which holds 1,200 people, nearly all the crowd members repeatedly waved their hands in the air in lieu of clapping while people spoke against the facility. When ICE officials spoke, many wagged their fingers in the air. During a recess, they filtered outside to listen to a woman who spoke through a megaphone. At times, the reaction from the crowd turned into clapping and cheering.
The meeting was the culmination of more than two months of public discussion in Santa Maria about the facility. More than 1,000 people showed up to a City Council meeting about a zone change and general plan amendment for the project on Jan. 21, while a Planning Commission meeting on Feb. 5 at the Fairpark saw more than 3,000 in attendance.
Several organizations rallied against the project earlier this month, registering people to vote in a call for city leaders to be ousted in November’s elections.
The issue was one complaint that spurred a petition from Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy to put a referendum on the ballot this year to make City Council seats represent districts instead of the city as a whole. Organizers said the City Council and Planning Commission votes in favor of the facility, despite public protests, showed a disconnect between Santa Maria’s leadership and its residents.
Rep. Lois Capps, D-CA, who represents the 24th Congressional District, also spoke out against ICE’s handling of the situation, saying the public wasn’t properly notified and asked the agency to halt the relocation process.