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In this city hall, official business is in Spanish

(Page 2 of 2)

For all the cultural debates over assimilation that the Spanish ordinance has sparked, the city council's second ordinance setting up the town as an immigration "haven" promises to be even more divisive.

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Some legal experts say the ordinance is troubling because it promises to fire a public employee merely for obeying federal law, but defenders counter that the concept of havens is protected by US law.

Indeed, El Cenizo is not the first city to take on US immigration policy. During the sanctuary movement of the 1980s, a number of US cities - including San Francisco, New York, and Chicago - passed ordinances to protect refugees from war-torn El Salvador and Guatemala. The rationale at the time was that a city government cannot operate without the trust of its residents, and undocumented residents may not report crimes or cooperate with police if they fear being deported.

The language of the 1996 Immigration Reform Act aimed to squelch such ordinances, but it left plenty of loopholes. "What that federal statute assumes is that you have information to withhold," says Robert Rubin, an attorney who helped pass a haven ordinance in San Francisco. "What our ordinance says is that police officials, or public health officials, may not inquire about immigration status. If they don't inquire, then there's nothing that they can tell."

In El Cenizo, Barton says this sort of resolution was the only way to regain public trust in government. With Border Patrol agents conducting daily searches of Laredo-bound buses, "some people were saying it was us calling the Border Patrol," says Barton, who was elected in November, about the same time the Border Patrol stepped up its presence here.

With the haven resolution passed, she believes people will now begin to trust their city officials and come to them with problems, including complaints against the Border Patrol.

For their part, Border Patrol officials say El Cenizo's haven won't have much effect on their operations, since local residents and not city officials provide most of their tip-offs. "El Cenizo doesn't have that many city employees anyway," says Border Patrol spokesman Mike Herrera.

What El Cenizo thinks

In town, the reaction is mostly supportive, although there are some skeptics. Virginia Salazar, a nutritionist at the community center, worries that all this press attention will make outsiders think El Cenizo is a lawless place.

"I don't think it's going to change anything, because there's a lot of Border Patrol that come by here," says Ms. Salazar. As for the Spanish-only meetings, "People are going to think that there's no one here speaks English, and it's not true."

But Susan Reynero, clerk at the Los Compadres convenience store, says the city may be building bridges with the community at a time when regular Border Patrol stops are putting local residents on edge.

"The Spanish meetings make sense, because it's the adults who are attending, and it's the children who are learning English at school," she says as a swarm of children chatter in a patois of English and Spanish, buying cold sodas and popsicles. As for the Border Patrol, she sighs: "It's OK if they stop the bus once in a while. But they do it every day. It becomes frustrating."

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society