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Controversy continues over Huntington Park immigrant appointees

The crowd at Tuesday night's City Council meeting in Huntington Park. Two men without legal immigration status were appointed to city commissions there in early August.
Leslie Berestein Rojas/KPCC
The crowd at Tuesday night's City Council meeting in Huntington Park. Two men without legal immigration status were appointed to city commissions there in early August.

Last month, Huntington Park officials captured national attention for appointing two local residents who don't have legal immigration status to positions on city commissions.

The announcement brought out anti-immigration protestors, but city officials held firm, defending their decision.

Five weeks later, Julian Zatarain and Francisco Medina, still haven't started on their commissions. But tension continues to build in Huntington Park.

At this week's city council meeting, dozens of protesters crowded the council chambers. They sat in the audience holding signs with messages like "Put Americans First!"

Zatarain and Medina were also at the meeting, and sat through a lengthy comments period, where residents from all over Southern California spoke. Etta Harbin drove up from Long Beach.

“Enough is enough!" Harbin yelled into the microphone. " I am 100 percent for Trump,” referring to the Republican presidential candidate's controversial immigration stance.

Several supporters showed up to defend Medina and Zatarain. One man begged city officials to "let them get to work addressing the important issues that face our city," and held a sign that read "I stand with Julian and Francisco."

The protests have slowed things down, said Medina, who plans to serve on the city's Health and Education commission.

“We were supposed to start about three weeks ago, but since there is a lot of pressure from people who are not from Huntington Park, complaining about our positions as commissioners, that is why things are going really, really slow right now," said Medina.

Zatarain said he didn't know when he would be sworn in. "Until this moment, we have no dates. I know we are supposed to be sworn in by the end of this month."

The delay is about more than the public outcry though. The city is also restructuring its commission system. Many commissions were disbanded in the recent past - partly for lack of interest, officials told KPCC.

Mayor Karina Macias said by phone Wednesday that when she first joined the council in 2012, aside from the Planning Commission, "other commissions were not really meeting, they had a lot of vacancies."

This year, with three newly-elected members on the city council including Jhonny Pineda, who appointed Medina and Zatarain, the commissions were re-drawn. Two seats per commission were opened to people from outside the city, as well as residents without legal status.

This has created its own controversy, not necessarily over the legal-status aspect. Former Planning Commission member Laura Herrera said she had to give up her seat and was told she could re-apply. She said there were only two vacancies on her commission at the time.

“They said they had to open up the commission seats to all members of the community, because there were so few qualified candidates,” said Herrera, who served four years as a planning commissioner. “It was a slap in the face. I am exceedingly qualified.”

Herrera opted not to reapply. She said she’s not against letting unauthorized immigrants who live in Huntington Park serve on city commissions, but she questions the appointment of some non-city residents.

Council member Pineda said there are still vacant seats on two of the restructured commissions, and that this is part of what’s held things up.