By Malia Spencer/Senior staff writer
A group of Santa Maria residents is calling on the city and its police department to enforce federal immigration laws, but local officials aren't enthusiastic about the idea.
Members of the newly formed Central Coast Minuteman Civil Defense Corps appeared before the Santa Maria City Council this week during the public comment period, and asked the council to support the idea that the police officers receive training and then work with the federal government to enforce immigration laws.
The group cites a section in the Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 that was enacted by Congress. The legislation outlines a way for state or other local governments to get involved in immigration enforcement, under section 287g of the act.
Group member Ramona Ramirez asked the council to encourage the Police Department to work with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Homeland Security departments.
Ramirez told the council the move is needed to help the community in “eliminating terrorists” or “people of other countries that are a danger.”
Since the group's call came during the public comment period, and the issue was not part of the agenda, neither the council nor the police chief commented during the meeting.
However, Police Chief Danny Macagni later said he has not considered taking the department in that direction. He added that the idea goes against the department's policing method.
“It conflicts directly with community policing,” he said, noting the department has worked hard on outreach programs “trying to gain the trust and confidence of the residents of our community.”
If someone commits a crime in Santa Maria, whether the person is a legal or illegal resident of the country, the police will thoroughly investigate.
If the suspect is caught and found to be an illegal resident, then upon his or her release from jail, immigration officials are contacted, usually by the Sheriff's Department, Macagni said.
Although Macagni heads up the police force, policies are set by the City Council, and the majority of members said they are not interested in taking the role suggested by the new group.
“We don't need a civil patrol,” said Councilwoman Hilda Zacarias. “We have a wonderful Police Department that takes care of health and safety issues for our community. That's who I stand behind, and the council stands behind them. We are not agents of the federal government and I have no intention of supporting becoming an agent of the federal government.
“(The group) should take its issues to the appropriate federal level,” she added.
Mayor Larry Lavagnino agreed with Zacarias that immigration is a federal issue, and added that some cities have passed ordinances dealing with immigration that have since been ruled unconstitutional.
Lavagnino added that he believes in the community policing method: “I think (police officers) are doing a very good job in the city of Santa Maria protecting the populace.”
The new Minuteman chapter formed because members are concerned that federal laws are not being followed, said Paula James, one of the group's leaders. In particular, she cited the high number of hit-and-run traffic collisions in the city.
“I have been involved with the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps for three years working on the border,” she said. “(It's) come to light many people in the community are concerned about illegal alien issues in the local community.”
The new chapter spans from Paso Robles to Santa Barbara, she said.