Board Meetings / Government

Breaking: Melrose Park Mayor Says He Can’t Commit to Welcoming Village Ordinance

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Residents stand up in a show of support for a Welcoming Village ordinance in Melrose Park during a Feb. 27 regular board meeting. || Michael Romain/VFP

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Monday, February 27, 2017 || By Michael Romain || @maywoodnews || Updated: 11:11 p.m.

The atmosphere inside of a packed room at 1 N. Broadway during a regular Melrose Park board meeting felt like the pre-ceremonial rumblings of a wedding audience. At least 100 people filled council chambers tonight, most hoping to hear that the board would at least start the process of approving a Welcoming Village ordinance.

Thirty minutes later, after a 15-minute ode to immigrants and a litany of prior good deeds done on behalf of his village’s Hispanic community, Melrose Park Mayor Ronald Serpico left most in the crowd feeling like jilted lovers.

Members of PASO – West Suburban Action Project, a nonprofit that advocates for immigrants and other vulnerable populations throughout the West Cook County suburbs — including Melrose Park, Stone Park, Maywood and Bellwood — have been vocal in their support of a proposal that would “draw a firm line between police and ICE, disentangling the criminal and immigration system,” according to a flyer the group has circulated.

The possibility that Melrose Park would pass some measure similar to what PASO is proposing seemed strong earlier this year. During a meeting in January, which Serpico did not attend due to a reported illness, members of the board seemed to get behind the measure.

Trustee Arturo Mota said at the time that Melrose Park “has been very supportive of being a welcoming community,” adding that the village has also gotten behind local initiatives and state laws that would ease the burden of living for immigrants.

A motion to “establish Melrose Park as a sanctuary village and authorize the offices of the mayor and village attorney to prepare all documents for the aforesaid” was tabled due to Serpico’s absence. Mota said the mayor wanted to “address everyone who is for or against” the ordinance before the vote was held.

But a Feb. 13 regular meeting where further discussion on the proposal was to take place was canceled, with a Serpico spokesman explaining that the mayor had been out of town and recuperating from “very serious back surgery.”

On Monday night, Serpico and the trustees heard at least 15 minutes of public comments from numerous community leaders expressing their support for the measure and arguing that it would alleviate some of the fear that’s been palpable in many immigrant communities since President Donald Trump’s election.

“Immigrants have always been part of the fabric of the United States of America. I’ve seen too many families torn apart due to deportation,” said Sister Noemia Silva, of the Missionary Sisters of Saint Charles Borromeo-Scalabrinians.

“Pope Francis asks each of us to help those who, for various reasons, have been forced out of their homeland and immigrate to a new land,” she said. “We cannot wait. It’s urgent for Melrose Park to become a welcoming village for immigrants.”

Silva and others referenced raids conducted by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement earlier this month that resulted in the of 680 people across the country, according to ICE. Seventy-five percent of them, the agency claimed, were “criminal aliens.” One of those arrests took place in Melrose Park.

Recently, President Trump has called for local law enforcement officials to cooperate with the federal government during his administration’s efforts to ramp up on immigration enforcement.

“People are afraid to take their children to school, to go to restaurants and to generally live their everyday lives,” said Mony Ruiz-Velasco, the executive director of PASO who is also an immigration rights attorney.

“The federal government is threatening to deport more than two or three million people this year and they are not going to be able to do that without deputizing local officials,” Ruiz-Velasco said.

“Two weeks ago, new policies were issued by the president making all immigrants targets for deportation,” she said. “This does not apply only to undocumented immigrants. They are threatening to prosecute people who came to the United States with their children, to charge them with smuggling.”

Martha Ortiz, a Melrose Park business owner, said that Trump’s immigration policies are hurting local businesses.

“Many of my employees are terrified that something can happen to their friends or their family and businesses like mine are beginning to see less sales, as people are fearful of being out and about,” she said. “They live with the fear that something can happen to them or their family. They’re also trying to save money in the case of an emergency or a tragic deportation.”

Samuel Valtierrez, a 25-year resident of Melrose Park who is running for a seat on the Proviso Township High Schools District 209 school board in the April 4 election, compared the trials of Latino immigrants today to those of immigrants in the past.

“If today was 1910 and [this were happening to the Italian community], I would be here saying the same thing,” Valtierrez said. “If it was 1870, I would be here to defend the Irish community, because they went through the same thing. But it’s 2017. And [it’s happening] to the Latino community.”

Serpico touted his record of taking stances on numerous immigration-related issues, noting that he’s spoken “all over the world” on behalf of immigration. The mayor said that he’s met on numerous occasions with Silva and also met recently with PASO officials about the proposed Welcoming Village ordinance.

The mayor added that the village has already taken steps to mitigate the widespread fear of deportation among area immigrants and their families by instituting numerous measures, such as stopping a click-it-or-ticket program because of the fear it elicited among some immigrant motorists. He also said that Melrose Park police officers don’t inquire about immigration status or cooperate with ICE.

“Who wants to see families be broken up? That’s not Christian,” Serpico said. “That’s not the right thing to do.”

But the mayor stopped short of committing to the creation of an ordinance that would be legally binding. The mayor briefly mentioned President Trump’s threats to yank some federal funding from local governments who refuse to cooperate with federal officials on immigration enforcement measures.

He also said that, besides, there’s not much a local government can do to stop federal authorities from coming into Melrose Park to conduct immigration-related actions. One village official said that the police learned about the one ICE arrest that occurred in town after reading it in the newspaper.

Ruiz-Velasco, however, pushed back, insisting that, although an ordinance would not stop deportations, it would at least provide “a layer of protection” against the federal government’s efforts and would help ease some residents’ fears.

Serpico said that he was concerned about Trump’s instability and unpredictable nature, adding that he didn’t want to pass an ordinance only to have the president implement an even more draconian policy that, given the village’s status, would perhaps open it up to potential financial repercussions.

The mayor, who didn’t explicitly say the ordinance was dead, said that he would be in communication with community stakeholders about the proposal. That explanation wasn’t enough for one Melrose Park resident, who insisted on Serpico providing a firmer declaration of his intent. No trustees on the board talked during the meeting.

“I’d like to be able to go home tonight and [tell my son some good news],” she said, adding that she was not a member of PASO.

“I can’t make that commitment,” Serpico said. “We’ll [keep] the lines of communication open.”

Valtierrez compared Serpico’s noncommittal speech to a boyfriend claiming that he loves his girlfriend without making a commitment to marriage, adding that an ordinance would be similar to a marriage or birth certificate.

“For me as a father, for my kids to feel secure, [and to know that] I am their father, my signature is on the birth certificate,” Valtierrez said. “That’s what makes me their father legally. That’s all we want. We want a legal document to feel protected.”

“I feel like someone whose been living with a woman for 20 years and has two kids, a house, two cars and I come home every day, and after 20 years she says, ‘Let’s get married,'” Serpico responded, in keeping with the marriage metaphor. “Does that paper change anything after 20 years?”

“If gives you some security, that’s for sure,” someone yelled from the audience.

“But how many people live with people,” Serpico responded, “and as soon as they get married, they get divorced?” VFP

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