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Year in Review

L.A. Is the 'Vanguard' for Immigrants' Rights

The chief of the city’s Office of Immigrant Affairs talks about what to expect in the Trump administration.

Preparing for the worst: Pro-immigration demonstrators gather in downtown Los Angeles in December. (Richard Vogel/AP)

President-elect Donald Trump ran his campaign on bashing undocumented immigrants and threatening cities that protect their rights. Since the election, these cities and many others have spoken up—vowing to stand behind their immigrant residents, at the risk of millions in federal funding.

One of these cities is Los Angeles, where one in ten residents is undocumented. In sheer numbers, Los Angeles County has more people without papers than any other in the country. The city’s mayor, Eric Garcetti, insists that when Trump takes office, the city will continue to support immigrant communities, and keep restricting police involvement in immigration law. Garcetti told the LA Times:

“If the first day, as president, we see something that is hostile to our people, hostile to our city, bad for our economy, bad for our security, we will speak up, speak out, act up, and act out.”

But how, exactly, is L.A. doing this? CityLab caught up with Dr. Linda Lopez, who heads the mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, to learn more about how the city is preparing for the coming months.

California, and L.A. in particular, are one step ahead of the demographic shift going on in the country. Could you talk about the role immigrants, including undocumented ones, play in the city as a demographic, cultural, and economic force?

California has one of the largest immigrant populations in the country. And in L.A. County, approximately 35 percent [of residents] are immigrants. Ten percent of those are undocumented. So, L.A. is really the epicenter of the undocumented population in the nation. Our mayor has continually affirmed that the city of L.A. is the city of immigrants, and that this diversity is our strength.

When the mayor took office, he reestablished the Office of Immigrant Affairs with the main goal of integrating immigrants into the economic, social, and civic fabric of the city.

More than 66 percent of the population in the city is either immigrants or the children of immigrants. So, it's no surprise that immigrants play a significant role, not only in our demography, but also economically. We know from research that immigrants contribute greatly to the local economy by creating mainstream businesses. Sixty-six percent of mainstream businesses are started by immigrant entrepreneurs. The economic imperative is that we continue to create opportunities for all to succeed, because [immigrants] make significant contributions to our tax system, to our businesses, and to the overall economic growth of the city.

Since the election, what are you hearing from the immigrant communities in the city? Are there sections of the population that are particularly vulnerable?

In the aftermath of the election, we saw anxiety and fear, especially among the children and youth. The mayor met with a lot of high school students in the L.A. [Unified School District] system to understand where this anxiety is coming from. During that meeting, it was clear to the mayor that a lot of youth are afraid of what's coming next in a Trump administration. Especially for the youth who are eligible for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), we're seeing a lot of anxiety about whether or not they should apply for the program, or for the renewal process.

In response, the mayor has conducted a series of community engagement sessions. We have partnered a lot with local organizations to do "know your rights" outreach so people know that they do have rights, and that these young children feel safe and secure in the city. Moving forward, we're hearing a lot of evidence and examples of a children who are really terrified that their parents will be deported. So, our job is to continue to partner with local nonprofits that can provide additional resources and services.  

Mayor Garcetti recently announced a $10 million legal defense fund to help families in deportation proceedings get access to legal counsel. Could you talk about why that’s an important move, especially in light of the deportations Trump has promised?

The fund is incredibly important for a city like L.A. It’s the first step, created to address the concerns of individuals who do not have access to legal counsel. It's a public-private partnership between the county, the city, and private philanthropy organizations. The right to counsel can make a significant difference in people's lives. It could mean obtaining asylum. It could provide an opportunity for individuals to receive special categories of visas—for example, unaccompanied minor children who're in deportation proceedings because they don't have a qualified, court-appointed attorney. We have a lot of vulnerable populations—kids, families, military veterans—who are in need of legal help and who could be very successful if they had an attorney [working to grant] them temporary status to stay in the U.S.

What are you anticipating in terms of Trump’s threat of pulling federal funding from L.A.? If it happens, you could lose between a couple of million in law enforcement grants to half billion in federal funds. Is it possible to still stand behind immigrants if that happens?

The first thing to note is that when it comes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and law enforcement, the mayor and Police Chief [Charlie] Beck have been pretty consistent in reiterating that it's not that the city does not comply with ICE, but that there are certain constitutional protections that are in place. We make sure that when it comes to ICE detainers that there is a judicial warrant for someone's detention. We do work with ICE when it comes to criminals. That's part of the distinction here. LAPD does not approach people based on their immigration status and/or ask for their paperwork, [and] there are other protections that are in place to make sure people aren't detained randomly.

With respect to the threat in funding, our mayor has been very clear that we're a welcoming city. We're a city that's built by immigrants and we will continue to make sure that they—and everyone else—are protected. We are waiting to see and learn more about this particular threat. In the interim, we will work with the new administration to make sure that those federal dollars come to our city for the range of infrastructure and other programs that we need.

Some legal experts say that it would be hard for the federal government to withdraw funds as a coercive measure. Is there a move to gear up for a legal battle?

I don't think that we've necessarily considered a legal battle at this point in time. I do know that when it comes to federal funding, Congress has to get themselves involved. So obviously, we'll be monitoring any legislation that will be coming out. I think it's premature to look at these other possibilities given that we don't really know what's exactly going to happen just yet.

For decades now, L.A. has refused to let its police department ask for immigration status in the field. It has declined requests to hold potential undocumented immigrants, including those that have committed petty crimes. What is the rationale behind these efforts?

The rationale behind that is security. We want to make sure that when immigrants are witnesses to crimes, they share that information with local law enforcement so that they can do their jobs. So, that whole trust and community policing aspect of it is an integral part of that policy.

What are other ways you envision L.A. setting the stage for immigrants’ rights in the coming years?

We’re at a critical moment right now. In California, we've weathered policies like Proposition 187 a long time ago, which was very anti-immigrant. There was a lot of anti-immigrant rhetoric at the time. I think we're at a moment in time in the city where, we're preparing to ensure that rights of all people are protected—all of our residents. That includes immigrants, their children, and families. The mayor has reiterated this commitment and advanced an agenda for the city based on rights, inclusion, and democratic values.

L.A., I think, is the vanguard when it comes to immigrants' rights. We’re organizing and building a collective movement to ensure that people who may feel frightened, targeted, or excluded have a voice. And I think we're seeing the fruits of this inclusive agenda. It includes not just immigrants and immigrants rights groups, but women, LGBTQ [people], African Americans, Muslims, and others who're committed to an America that is open to diverse cultures and faiths. L.A. is the quintessential city that has been built by immigrants, and it will continue to welcome immigrants.

About the Author

  • Tanvi Misra
    Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering demographics, inequality, and urban culture. She previously contributed to NPR's Code Switch blog and BBC's online news magazine.