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Santa Maria Sun / News

The following article was posted on January 29th, 2014, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 14, Issue 47 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [santamariasun.com] - Volume 14, Issue 47

Questions abound over whether an ICE office will come to Santa Maria

BY AMY ASMAN

Go big or go home. That’s the motto behind a decision to hold the next Santa Maria Planning Commission meeting at the Santa Maria Fairpark.

“There will be 1,100 seats,” Larry Appel, the city’s director of community development, told the Sun in a recent interview. “I went ahead and secured that so there will be room for everyone who wants to speak.”

Appel is assuming a large number of people will show up to the Feb. 5 meeting because the commission is set to discuss proposed plans for construction of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office on McCoy Lane in Santa Maria.

More than 100 people attended the Jan. 21 City Council meeting to oppose the proposed project, which also includes plans for medical offices.

The council ultimately voted 3-2, with members Terri Zuniga and Willie Green dissenting, to begin the rezoning process for the property from industrial to commercial-professional office use. Mayor Alice Patino explained to the crowd that the council was only discussing whether to rezone the property. She said people who wanted to talk about the purpose of the building would have to attend the next Planning Commission meeting.

Nonetheless, 45 people signed up to speak during the public comment period. The majority of speakers voiced concerns that an ICE office would lead to the separation of families and deterioration of the local community. They also mentioned reports of alleged abuse at ICE detention centers.

“It saddens me to hear about the possibility of [an ICE office] coming to this community,” said one audience member through an interpreter. “Because while [ICE agents] are supposedly in search of serious criminals, they often hurt regular working people.”

Arnulfo Romero, a representative for Parents/Community Involvement Committee, a local education advocacy group, presented the council with a petition of 120 signatures from local farmers and business owners opposed to the office relocating from its current space in the Lompoc penitentiary.

Additionally, the council asked local ICE representative Steve Finn to speak about the purpose of the office and why officials are trying to move to Santa Maria.

Finn explained that the facility at the prison—four portable trailers—was meant to be temporary when it was installed in 1996.

“They’re in bad shape,” he said of the trailers. “We’re looking for something a little more modern, more centralized, and outside of the prison.”

He said the relocation of the office isn’t going to lead to an uptick in “roundups” of undocumented immigrants.

“This new facility is not going to change anything that we do here. We’re already here working in Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties,” Finn said, adding that ICE’s mission is to target criminal aliens.

If approved, the office would serve as a processing facility for undocumented inmates coming out of the prison, the California Men’s Colony, and the San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbra County jails. Finn said it takes his office approximately two to three hours to fingerprint, photograph, and interview the inmates before transporting them south to detention centers in Camarillo and Los Angeles.

The Santa Maria office would have three holding cells—two capable of holding up to six people, and one capable of holding one person—and a kitchen for preparing food. He said his office, which is open during the weekdays, is only allowed to hold people for up to 12 hours.

After the council’s 3-2 split vote on the issue, it went before the Planning Commission at a study session on Feb. 23. Director of Community Development Appel said the commissioners asked about the definition of a detention facility.

“Is it a jail, or is it just a locked office?” Appel recalled.

He said he was able to determine that the project was appropriately labeled for commercial-professional office because the holding cells would only take upabout 200 to 300 square feet of the 1,200-square-foot building.

Up next, Appel said, the council will have a second reading of the rezoning at its Feb. 4 meeting. But the bigger decision of whether to move forward with the planned development is expected to take place at the Planning Commission’s Feb. 5 meeting.

Commissioner Etta Waterfield encouraged concerned community members to attend the upcoming meeting, which begins at 6:30 p.m.

“People will not walk away wondering what [the office’s] purpose is,” she said.

For more information about the project, visit cityofsantamaria.org.