SAN JOSE — Amid rising anxiety in immigrant communities fueled by deportation fears and increasingly aggressive federal operations, San Jose police Chief Eddie Garcia did one of the things he does best.
He preached. Literally.
During the Spanish-language Sunday afternoon mass at Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish south of downtown, Garcia took the pulpit and reassured congregants that his department is not assisting or performing the work of federal immigration agents who have become more active in the South Bay and broader region.
On a day when the parish burned blessed palm branches in preparation for Ash Wednesday, the chief echoed a call he made over a year ago in the wake of the last presidential election.
“It’s been our longstanding policy that we will not enforce federal immigration laws,” Garcia said. “We cannot have members of our community afraid to contact police. Our mission is not to enforce federal immigration laws.”
“We recognize there is a lot of fear in our community,” he added. “It’s important for us to differentiate the fact that SJPD is completely different (from immigration).”
The fear to which he alludes has been driven by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids and workplace audits of Northern California businesses and high-profile deportations. Some of the worry has been so pronounced that any presence of federal agents in working-class and immigrant neighborhoods has caused a commotion, such as when a DEA operation near Sacred Heart Community Services touched off fears of another ICE raid.
“We need to ensure that our residents, whether they’re documented or undocumented that live in the city, know that the men and women who wear this uniform are not the enemy,” Garcia said. “That’s a very important message we have to continue to put out, especially in light of some of the things that have happened recently regarding federal immigration laws.”
That was a welcome message to the Rev. Walter Suarez, pastor of the Sacred Heart parish. He’s had to field numerous questions and concerns about potential raids that in some cases have either led to people not showing up to work or quitting their jobs out of deportation concerns.
“We have had that a lot, and we have had many families in the past who have been deported,” Suarez said. “It’s really important that the community feels comfortable and safe, so they can go to police without fearing something will happen to them.”
Those stances have put Garcia, San Jose, and Santa Clara at odds with ICE officials for more than a year, and rumors persist about large-scale ICE raids of so-called “sanctuary” cities and communities as a punishment for their resistance to cooperating.
Several Bay Area jurisdictions were served with letters from the Justice Department last month demanding they produce documentation showing whether their local law enforcement is failing to share information with federal immigration authorities, and threatened subpoena actions for non-compliance.
All the more reason, Garcia said, for the message he sent Sunday, which he plans to repeat at other churches in the coming weekends.
“Our immigrant communities many times don’t differentiate the San Jose Police Department, because we are also government. A lot of times our undocumented communities might not see that,” he said. “We have to constantly assure them that although we are part of government, we are separate from (immigration) issues. Our role and mission is not to discourage or strike fear, but to embrace everyone, while keeping our neighborhoods free from crime and violence.”
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