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Mayor rejects call by faith leaders to better protect undocumented immigrants

Naturalized U.S. citizen Martha Avalos and her 4-year-old daughter Valeria Vázquez attend a rally in front of Fresno City Hall in January calling on Fresno Mayor Lee Brand to stand with the undocumented community.
Naturalized U.S. citizen Martha Avalos and her 4-year-old daughter Valeria Vázquez attend a rally in front of Fresno City Hall in January calling on Fresno Mayor Lee Brand to stand with the undocumented community. jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com

Faith leaders have been calling for more protections for undocumented immigrants in Fresno through a city-supported legal defense fund and the creation of an Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs, along with the dismissal of misdemeanor charges related to a protest march urging officials to make Fresno a sanctuary city.

The short answer Wednesday from Fresno Mayor Lee Brand: No.

I do not believe it is prudent to use our precious taxpayer resources on these issues.

Fresno Mayor Lee Brand

“I do not believe it is prudent to use our precious taxpayer resources on these issues, when we do not have enough money to fund core city services such as police, fire, parks and streets to the level they should be funded,” Brand wrote Wednesday in a response to requests from Faith in Fresno, part of Faith in the Valley, which represents around 120 congregations in the central San Joaquin Valley.

Brand also said the federal government needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform that includes a pathway to citizenship, and that officials “should stop kicking this can down the road.”

Faith in Fresno community organizer Sukaina Hussain said the proposed Office of Immigrant and Refugee Affairs would help people adapt to life in Fresno by offering a central location for accessing supportive resources and education, and that the legal defense fund would pay for legal representation for undocumented people, along with training and outreach.

The Fresno protest charges are against four people involved in a March 5 march that Faith in Fresno leaders say was a peaceful gathering of mostly clergy and community organizers. City spokesman Mark Standriff said the charges were related to one person lying in the street and three others blocking the entrance to the county jail. The charges include gathering without a permit, “which is absolutely ridiculous, to say the least,” said Reza Nekumanesh, a board member for Faith in the Valley and director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno. The march was not organized by Faith in Fresno, but the group has been questioning the charges.

“This is about our ability to protest,” Nekumanesh said. “This is about our ability to speak up. This is about our ability to have our voices heard in a time when we’re being marginalized more, pushed out more, and we call upon our city leaders to stand with us for free speech, for peaceful protest. It’s not only our right, it’s our way to be involved in the process of our democracy.”

It’s not only our right, it’s our way to be involved in the process of our democracy.

Reza Nekumanesh, Faith in the Valley board member and director of the Islamic Cultural Center of Fresno, about peaceful protests

Brand said it would be “unwise and unfair” to intervene in the legal process and dismiss charges against protesters.

“I strongly support everyone’s First Amendment right of free speech and to protest,” Brand said. “I have full confidence that our police department proceeded lawfully, respectfully and with restraint.”

Although Brand said he won’t use city dollars to support a legal defense fund for undocumented immigrants, Faith in Fresno community organizer Sukaina Hussain said the group has a number of organizations that have expressed interest in chipping in. Hussain said data shows only around 37 percent of undocumented people receive legal representation in court.

We continue to call on the city and the mayor himself to get off the sidelines and play an active role in defending the vulnerable.

Thomas Weiler, Faith in Fresno organizer

Faith in Fresno also asked Brand to expand the Office of Independent Review to give the police auditor investigative powers “for the sake of transparency and community trust of the police department.” Brand said it isn’t necessary to add investigative powers.

But he noted that he sought to require that the police auditor be a full-time local resident “who must engage the community in a significant manner,” which was ratified by the City Council on March 16 at the same time a Citizens Public Safety Advisory Board was created to work “hand-in-hand” with the office.

In addition, Faith in Fresno asked that the Rental Housing Improvement Act be fully funded and “swiftly” implemented. Brand said the rental housing inspection program is “proceeding smoothly” since it was approved Feb. 2, and that the city is in the process of creating a registry, and he plans to include full funding for the program in the 2017-18 budget proposal. If approved, inspections should begin in the fall. In response to a request to share progress about the program in a community forum, Brand said that’s not necessary.

There are far too many of us – immigrants, refugees, African Americans, people living in poverty and with vulnerable health – forced to live in fear and uncertainty today.

Rabbi Laura Novak Winer of Temple Beth Israel

Faith in Fresno leaders called the recommendations “moral policy imperatives” necessary for defending the safety and human dignity of families.

“Just last week, a Fresno State study confirmed what many of us already knew: That almost half of all adults in the Central Valley fear deportation for themselves or someone they know, and two-thirds of Latinos hold this fear,” said Faith in Fresno member Rabbi Laura Winer of Temple Beth Israel. “Thankfully, the threats which so many of us are facing is also prompting us to come together more than ever before, across race, religion, even language. Now we need those who we elected to represent us to step up to the plate as well and show that they are committed to our right to stay and thrive in Fresno and this Valley.”

Carmen George: 559-441-6386, @CarmenGeorge

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