The Los Angeles City Council, in an emotional hearing displaying nearly every member's immigrant roots, gave a major victory to a national support movement for Central American refugees by declaring Los Angeles a "city of sanctuary."
The 8-to-6 vote added the nation's second most populous city to a list of 250 churches and some smaller cities that have endorsed the Sanctuary Movement. A last-minute change in the local resolution opens the city to law-abiding political refugees from all countries, not just El Salvador and Guatemala.
Under the resolution proposed by the council's newest member and first Asian American, Mike Woo, city employes were directed to "exclude refugee status as a consideration" in dealing with persons seeking help. The council endorsed police department policy against reporting illegal immigrants to federal immigration authorities unless they have committed serious crimes, and it said the city opposed deporting refugees who fear for their lives at home.
"This is a deeply emotional issue with me," said council member Zev Yaroslavsky. He invoked the memory of 937 Jewish refugees aboard the German liner St. Louis who were denied asylum in the United States a few months before the beginning of World War II and the Nazi Holocaust.
More than 400 supporters of the national Sanctuary Movement jamming the council chamber shouted, cheered and exchanged hugs when the vote was announced.
"I'm utterly amazed and elated," said Sister Jo'Ann De Quattro, a Roman Catholic nun who chairs the sanctuary committee of the Southern California Ecumenical Council's Interfaith Task Force on Central America. She said she expected the vote to encourage many other cities to follow suit.
Some of the council members supporting the resolution had harsh words for refugees' treatment by the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service. The western regional INS commissioner, Harold Ezell, responded in kind, calling the council measure "a real turkey of a resolution" and an "absolute insult" to federal officials.
INS officials said arrests will continue and indicated that the vote will chill its cooperative relations with the city.
Among opponents of the resolution were Dave Cunningham and Gilbert Lindsay, two of the council's three black members, who warned that a glut of refugees could increase tensions in the poor neighborhoods the two represent.
"I understand the emotion that is involved in this matter," Cunningham said, noting other members' references to immigrant parents and grandparents. "But all of us did not come here seeking asylum . . . . Some of us came to America involuntarily and did not get refuge when we sought it here."
Council member Hal Bernson, who represents a portion of the suburban San Fernando Valley, also voted against the resolution after saying he supported many parts of it. He warned that "city of sanctuary" would be seen not just as a way to encourage refugees already here to report crimes and housing- and health-code violations but as an invitation to more illegal immigration.
Woo argued that with an estimated 300,000 Central American refugees in the area, the resolution would help city officials do their jobs. Without the sanctuary declaration, the resolution said, "the climate of fear prevalent among Central American refugees . . . may potentially impair the efficiency of city government agencies, disturb the efforts of law enforcement agencies to resolve pending cases, and generally contradict the ideals of diversity and tolerance to which the City of Los Angeles subscribes."
Officials estimate that several thousand Central American refugees may be here illegally. The resolution does not appear to apply to the much larger numbers of illegal immigrants from Mexico who have come here for jobs rather than political refuge.
Voting for the resolution were Woo, Yaroslavsky, Joy Picus, Marvin Braude, Joel Wachs, Howard Finn, Robert Farrell and council president Pat Russell. Many cited the support of key religious leaders. In a letter to Woo, Roman Catholic Archbishop Roger Mahony asked that "shelter, food, clothing and medical care" be offered "to everyone here in our community without concern for verifying documentation or place of origin."
The Sanctuary Movement lobbied for the vote here at a critical time in its four-year effort to persuade the U.S. government to offer asylum to any Central American with a believable claim of political persecution, as they argue is called for in the Protocol and Refugee Act of 1980. Federal officials say most refugees cannot prove that they are in danger at home. Eleven of the Sanctuary Movement's most active members are on trial in Tucson on several felony counts of harboring and transporting illegal aliens.
INS agents have refrained from entering and arresting illegal aliens in any of the churches declaring themselves sanctuaries. The cities of Berkeley, Calif., Cambridge and Brookline, Mass., Madison, Wis., and Takoma Park, Md., have endorsed the movement in various ways. The mayors of Chicago and New York have issued orders limiting cooperation with INS agents.