By Abel Salas
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Dozens of activists from several San Fernando Valley grassroots groups rallied recently outside the district office of California Senator Robert “Bob” Hertzberg in Van Nuys.
The crowd who represented members of local organizations including Buen Vecino, San Fernando Valley Young Democrats, and Somos Familia Valle urged the Senator to voice his support for AB 937 – the Vision Act -Voiding Inequality and Seeking Inclusion for Our Immigrant Neighbors Act. The rally, said Carlos Amador, was jointly organized with the group “ICE out of California,” a diverse and growing statewide coalition credited for the direct action and virtual mobilization strategies which led to overwhelming support for the VISION Act (AB 937).
The VISION Act (AB 937) which was introduced during the 2021 legislative session by Assembly Member Wendy Carrillo was passed in the Assembly and is currently on the Senate floor.
AB 937 would prohibit any state or local agency from arresting or assisting with the arrest, confinement, detention, transfer, interrogation, or deportation of an individual for immigration enforcement purposes.
There have been incidents in the past where local law enforcement has assisted ICE and as a result, people have been arrested, placed in detention centers, and then deported. This practice has made jail a pipeline to deportation no matter how small the infraction.
If passed, local and state resources cannot be used to funnel immigrants into immigration detention centers where they may be detained indefinitely and separated from their families.
Amador, 37, a long-time immigrant rights activist, was a teenager when he struck out on his own and headed north to Los Angeles.
“I had a little folded up piece of paper with the phone number for an aunt who I knew was living out here somewhere,” he said. He and many other immigrants are aware of cooperative efforts between local law enforcement and ICE as well as clandestine custody transfers that have occurred.
Enrique Cristóbal, 39, a substance abuse counselor at the San Fernando Recovery Center, knows the impact of being scooped up without having any recourse. He said his life was directed negatively because of the treatment he received as a teen by local law enforcement.
“I was born in Mexico but came with my parents to live in Northridge when I was 14. I was almost 15 and still struggling with English when I was assaulted by gang members. The police came and assumed I was one of them. I couldn’t speak the language, so I was labeled.”
It was an imprint he accepted and went on to embrace. “Wherever I was or went, I would carry it with me for a long time. I believed that was who I was supposed to be,” he said.
Cristóbal was convicted of a more serious crime in 2003 and remanded to state prison for a term of 25 years to life. Nine years after he entered the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation prison facility as an inmate, he said, circumstances involving his family led him to an epiphany, and a deeply-seated determination to change his life.
“My step-daughter told me not to be hurting anybody anymore,” Cristóbal confided. “I reflected on that, and I realized that the person I feared most as a kid… that’s who I was growing up to be. I was becoming my father, so, I decided to change.”
He recalled being able to connect the violence he often found himself resorting to as a self-styled gang leader as well as a gang member to the profound physical and emotional abuse he had been subjected to by his alcoholic father. His transformation, he believed, required a college degree, and so he enrolled in as many self-improvement and educational programs or courses as he could.
Although he had no need for recognition or commendation as a model prisoner, his efforts drew attention. On November 10, 2020, he received a letter signed by Governor Newsom, Cristóbal recounted proudly. It informed him that his sentence had been commuted and that he would be leaving the prison within days. It struck him that he was being released a full decade before he would have even been eligible to request a parole board hearing.
After serving almost 18 years of his original sentence, Cristóbal—much to his shock and dismay—did not leave prison a free man. He had merely been released to ICE custody and was being delivered to a detention center where he might be held indefinitely, was denied due process, and exposed to COVID, which he contracted.
These “entanglements” between Sheriffs in several California Central Valley counties and ICE agents are thoroughly examined in a recent ACLU (American Civil Liberties Union): Northern California report. Released this February, Collusion in California’s Central Valley: The Case for Ending Sheriff Entanglement with ICE. It also traces the increasingly warm communication exchanges between Sheriffs and ICE agents, flouting the 2018 law against the use of public-funded resources by local, regional, or state agencies to assist ICE enforcement activity.
“Of course, I started advocating for myself right away. Being detained there was worse than state prison. Eventually, I prepared and submitted an appeal on my own, but it was denied,” recounts Cristóbal.
However, the following year, with the help of attorneys who took up his cause and helped him refine the arguments which would prove conclusively that his application for political asylum in the U.S. had sufficient merit to justify a court hearing before a judge.
In February 2022, Enrique Cristóbal was finally allowed to return to the valley and celebrated for his heroic efforts to become a valuable, contributing member of the community where his difficult journey began.
Regarding the 200-plus signed postcards delivered during the rally from individual constituents urging Hertzberg to support AB 937, to the District offices in stacks thin enough to slide through the small gap under the locked double glass doors, Cristóbal offers what he believes should happen next.
“We’ve already done our part. Now it’s his turn. We just need him to sign on and get behind it.”
Responding to a request for comment from The San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol Newspaper, Senator Hertzberg replied, “Last year, I agreed to vote for the VISION Act as proposed to be amended when it passed off the Assembly Floor. My Chief of Staff and I have had several meetings with the community who support the measure and continue to listen to their voices. I will support the measure if the author follows through on her commitments to her Assembly colleagues.” He did not elaborate further.