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Two towns, two stands on immigration reform

One California city gets tough with illegals, even as another opts to become a 'sanctuary.'

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"I just feel that immigration is out of control, and no one is standing up to say enough is enough," says Clara Forsythe, a college senior, sipping a latte outside the Starbucks on West 19th Street. She has felt the impact of increased street crime - including car theft and home burglary in recent years - and attributes rising problems at local schools to immigrants who don't know or won't learn English.

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In the same way that Aguirre and other Maywood residents say they feel "embattled" by threats of crackdowns on illegal immigrants, Ms. Forsythe says she feels that her way of life is being "encroached on." She was distressed by a huge street demonstration in Los Angeles late last month in favor of immigrant rights, saying those demonstrators in the country illegally "disregard US law but then drain social services, from hospitals to schools and prisons."

She supports a move by Costa Mesa's city council to ask federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers to "cross-designate" Costa Mesa police personnel - the first municipality in the country to do so. Cross-designation is a kind of additional training for nonfederal agents - in this case a small subset of Costa Mesa police - that allows them to access previously restricted federal databases relative to immigration status. If a database shows a suspected illegal immigrant is a known felon, local officials hand the person over to ICE officials, who begin deportation proceedings.

In both Maywood and Costa Mesa, not all residents are pleased with their town's immigration decisions. Former Maywood Mayor Sam Pena, who remains a councillor, says the city should not be flouting federal law, but rather should work within the system to change it. In Costa Mesa, public outcry forced local officials to scale down their initial proposal to give cross-designation training to most patrol officers. Instead, they are asking for training for about 30 gang-enforcement specialists and plainclothes detectives who deal with violent felons.

On Saturday, hundreds of Latinos demonstrated at Costa Mesa City Hall to protest the measure, and local tempers are flaring.

"There has been lots of misinformation and disinformation about these proposals," says Sgt. Ron Smith of the Costa Mesa police department. "There is both lack of general understanding of what is going on, as well as people on both sides trying to misrepresent the other for their own agenda."

That lack of general understanding is exacerbated by at least two phenomena, say experts. One is a major finding of a 2005 Public Policy Institute of California study that "most immigrants in California lack much experience with the American political system ... immigrant involvement in city government may be quite limited."

The other is the clash between local law-and-order prerogatives and federal border-and-deportation mandates. When Congress debated in 2004 the so-called CLEAR Act (a law to let state and local agencies determine their own participation in enforcing federal immigration laws), the International Association of Chiefs of Police issued a statement saying such plans could have a "chilling effect" on the ability of local police to protect the public they serve.

The worry is that local police would see reports of criminal activity dry up in immigrant communities, as both legal and illegal immigrants come to avoid police contact.

"The role of local governments in immigration policy is likely to remain unclear," says Ramakrishnan of UC Riverside. "In some cities it might mean working hand in hand with federal immigration and border authorities, and in others it might mean looking the other way."