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HUNTINGTON PARK (CBSLA.com) — Huntington Park became the first city in California to appoint two undocumented immigrants as commissioners on city advisory boards, a lawmaker confirms.
City Councilman Jhonny Pineda has picked Francisco Medina to join the health and education commission and Julian Zatarain for the parks and recreation commission.
The 32-year-old lawmaker told CBSLA online producer Deborah Meron that he promised voters while running for office that he would create more opportunities for undocumented residents.
“Huntington Park is a city of opportunity and a city of hope for all individuals regardless of socioeconomic status, race, creed, or in this case, citizenship,” the councilman said in a statement. “Both these gentlemen have accomplished a great deal for the city. For that, on behalf of the city council, mayor, and our city, I want to say thank you to them both and I am confident they will do an excellent job on their commission posts.”
The announcement was met with uproar at a city council meeting held in Huntington Park on Monday night.
“You only want to appoint these specific individuals, only two, because they’re your personal friends that worked on your campaign,” one resident stated to Pineda at the meeting. “Shame on you.”
Community activist Sandra Orozco also spoke out against the appointments, stating that they send the wrong message to the community and to the country.
“We’re sending the wrong message to other cities that you can be illegal, and you can come and work for a city,” Orozco said.
Mayor Karina Macias, meanwhile, was vocal in her support of the appointments on Monday, arguing that those who live here deserve a voice, whether they are legal or not.
Pineda says he cleared the appointments with the city attorney, who confirmed there’s nothing that requires a commissioner to be a registered voter, a documented citizen or even a resident, which technically means someone here without legal residency can serve.
“We need to make sure that we bring everyone together to the table here in Huntington Park so that we can make sure we’re sharing the same vision,” Pineda said.
Appointees first passed a LifeScan background check.
Medina and Zatarain would not be paid for the volunteer positions and would not have a direct hand in constructing policy but would help advise the council on legislation. Other commissioners receive a $75 monthly stipend on months when they hold meetings.
Medina attended the meeting on Monday evening but did not want to get into a debate with critics.
“I’m not going to say anything,” Medina explained. “I’m just happy for the fortune that I have, and I’m going to do my best to represent every single resident in Huntington Park, regardless if you’re undocumented, regardless if you are a citizen. We’re just going to be working for everyone.”
Coming the same year that California allowed residents to apply for a driver’s license, regardless of immigration status, this move is the latest in an effort to recognize an increasingly sizable demographic in the state.
Pineda says at 13 years old he emigrated alone to the United States. He established legal residency and told Meron he feels blessed to have been able to come here and work. He’s served as a district representative on the California State Senate and legislative assistant for the U.S. House of Representatives. He currently is president of the California Latino Leadership Institute, an organization designed for young professionals interested in leadership development and serving their community.
This is Pineda’s first year on the Huntington Park City Council.
The councilman touched on his childhood in Central America and says there would be nights he’d come home to a house with no food.
He says the criticism of people who emigrate illegally often comes without understanding the hardship they leave behind.
When asked whether he expected any reaction to his commissioner selections, Pineda said: “Having worked at the federal level, I understand that not everything that you do reflects good on the entire nation. Of course, we’re going to have people who disagree with me, but I’m fine with that.”
Pineda says he selected Medina and Zatarain primarily for their contributions to the city.
A graduate from Cal State Dominguez Hills with a bachelor’s degree in sociology and Chicano studies, Medina interned for then-Assemblyman Gil Cedillo, who now serves on the Los Angeles City Council, Pineda says. Medina also organizes immigration forums aimed a helping working-class communities.
Zatarain is a student at Santa Monica Community College who came to the U.S. in 2007, according to Pineda. At Huntington Park High School, he served as ASB president and graduated with the highest GPA in his class. He acted as campus representative for English as a Second Language program and created a club to help ESL students prepare for college. Pineda says he created a local chapter of the Red Cross and organized several blood drives. Zatarain wants to attend law school.
Pineda says the decision announced at the City Council meeting Monday became official after being processed by the council.