Livingston becomes Merced County’s first ‘sanctuary city’

Livingston first sanctuary city in Merced County

Livingston City Council on a split vote adopted a sanctuary city resolution during a contentious Tuesday night meeting.
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Livingston City Council on a split vote adopted a sanctuary city resolution during a contentious Tuesday night meeting.

A heated meeting ended Tuesday night at City Hall in Livingston with a divided council formally declaring the city a ‘sanctuary’ for undocumented immigrants, prompting cheering and hugging in the audience.

The Livingston City Council voted 3-2, becoming the first city in Merced County to choose a side in an ongoing national debate.

Mayor Jim Soria and Mayor Pro Tem Gurpal Samra cast the no votes. Council members Juan Aguilar, Alex McCabe and Arturo Sicairos voted in favor of the resolution.

“Becoming a sanctuary city does not solve all the problems, but it is the first step,” McCabe said. “For those of you here today who may not have documents, hear me now: You are a citizen of Livingston.”

Livingston is the first city in the San Joaquin Valley to declare itself a sanctuary, according to Crissy Gallardo, a community organizer with Faith in the Valley, the main group behind Tuesday’s sanctuary proposal.

Under the policy, city officials, including law enforcement officers, won’t work with federal agencies to enforce immigration laws or partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, according to the city’s resolution.

President Donald Trump made immigration a centerpiece of his campaign, and once he took office he signed an executive order saying he would withhold federal funding from so-called sanctuary cities. Attorney General Jeff Sessions also threatened not to grant Justice Department money to cities that don’t comply with federal immigration laws.

Livingston’s city attorney, Jose M. Sanchez, noted several cities have filed lawsuits to fight the executive order. A federal judge in San Francisco also temporarily blocked Trump’s order.

During the meeting, council members routinely translated comments into Spanish. At least 30 people in the audience stood to signify they supported the city’s sanctuary policy. A handful of supporters spoke during public comment urging the council to approve the resolution. No one spoke against the policy Tuesday night.

“Most of the immigrants here are not invisible,” Floripes Dzib said during public comment. “We pay taxes, we pay our water bills, we pay rent. We are part of the community. ... We want these people to feel free to call 911.”

In January, Livingston Joint Union School District became the first agency in the county to pass a similar ordinance when its school board declared the district a “safe haven” for students and said it won’t give out student immigration information to officials without a court order.

In the city of just under 14,000, about 46 percent were born in another country, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. More than 85 percent of Livingston residents older than age 5 speak a language other than English, the census bureau says. About 73 percent are Hispanic or Latino.

The council considered two resolutions: the first declared the city a sanctuary and the second affirmed the city’s commitment to diversity and immigrants.

The council heard from the city attorney and police chief before the vote about the technicalities of the policy, including current and future policing policies and potential funding implications. Police Chief Ruben Chavez said his department does not go door-to-door asking for immigration information or enforce immigration policy.

County Supervisor Rodrigo Espinoza, a former Livingston mayor who now represents the city on the county Board of Supervisors, spoke in favor of the policy. “I was trying to stay out of it,” he said. “As neighbors, as family, as friends, as elected (officials), we have to support each other.”

He called specifically on Samra, who is Sikh, and noted that in 2002 after 9/11 the city council passed a resolution supporting Sikhs, a large population group in the town.

Samra, the mayor’s pro tem, shot back, saying the county board of supervisors hasn’t passed a sanctuary resolution. “Where is the county? I don’t see the county risking anything,” he said.

Samra said he never has supported President Donald Trump and does not believe it’s right to break up families through deportation.

“No matter what we do, no one is protected from the federal government,” Samra said.

The entire council agreed it was important to educate the public on what it means to be a “sanctuary city” and to hold public workshops on immigrant rights and securing residency or citizenship.

Brianna Calix: 209-385-2477