A Southern California city has appointed two undocumented immigrants to serve on government panels, reported KPCC, a public radio station. The Huntington Park men will be considered volunteers and will not receive the monthly stipend that such officials normally receive.
City council member Jhonny Pineda named Julian Zatarain, 21, to the Parks and Recreation Commission and Francisco Medina, 29, to the Health and Education Commission. Both men were born in Mexico and will lead their respective commissions, KABC-TV in Los Angeles reported. "They have been community volunteers for a lot of years," Pineda said, as KPCC reported. "They've always given to the community. ... They just happen to be undocumented."
Huntington Park is a city of about 58,000 residents, located in Los Angeles County, just south of downtown Los Angeles.
Zatarain arrived in the U.S. when he was 13 in 2007, and served with the Red Cross and other organizations helping young people like himself get an education, the Los Angeles Times reported. He never imagined being able to serve the city in an official capacity.
"I'm speaking out for people like me," Zatarain said. "I'm not doing anything wrong."
But the move to appoint immigrants in the country illegally, reportedly made to boost participation in the city's immigrant community, did not come without controversy. Residents in a council meeting Monday spoke both for and against the men taking the positions. One man praised the decisions while a woman acused city officials of "breaking the law," KPCC reported.
People in the country illegally cannot vote or take elected office, but state law does not prevent the men from being appointed as city commissioners. And unlike other members of government panels, they will not take home a monthly stipend that usually ranges from about $25 to $75. One councilwoman called the volunteer arrangement exploitative but other officials said it would make sure everyone in the city was able to participate.
"Our population includes documented and undocumented immigrants, and I wanted to make sure everyone could participate," Huntington Park Mayor Karina Macias said, the Los Angeles Times reported. "If we're going to talk about transparency, being open and having a community that's involved, then the conversation also has to include undocumented immigrants. I'm hoping other cities are looking at what we're doing here."
The area around Huntington Park has long been an entry point for immigrants making their way to the United States illegally. As a result, voter turnout has often been very low. More than 50 percent of the Huntington Park population is foreign born, and about 97 percent of the population is Hispanic, U.S. Census data show. A spokesman for Pineda told KPCC that Huntington Park was the first city in California to name undocumented immigrants to commissioner positions.