They chose the day before Gilbert’s Global Village Festival to send a message to Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman: “Open your heart” to immigrants.
About two dozen Hispanic advocates gathered Friday afternoon at Gilbert and Baseline roads to protest the deportation of three teenagers caught drag racing and a proposal by Berman that Gilbert police turn over all illegal immigrants caught breaking the law to federal authorities.
“They have a multicultural festival in the city of Gilbert (today), and we want to say to the people of Mesa and Gilbert, that we are not welcome in Gilbert,” said Magdalena Schwartz of Mesa, who called Berman’s proposal “racist.”
Advocates who annually attend today’s Gilbert festival instead plan to boycott it, she said, partly because they feel Gilbert now has an environment of “fear.”
Berman denied the accusations and said that on Friday, in fact, he signed a proclamation supporting the first Hispanic Ford dealer in Arizona. He has no issue with Hispanics, he said, but with illegal immigrants who violate the law.
“I’ve never said anything against Hispanics, not once,” Berman said. “What I have said and I’ll say again is illegal aliens should not be in our country, and if somebody is in our country illegally, if they come to Gilbert they need to be on their best behavior. I don’t care if they’re illegally here from Mexico, Germany, Switzerland or from Albania.”
Visiting members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America joined the protest as well as some residents who had recently been jailed by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office for being in the country illegally.
One sign read, “Mayor Berman, please open your mind and your heart.” Another carried by a 4-year-old boy read, “God is Hispanic, too.”
The issue became heated in Gilbert after Jaime Cisneros, 16, was arrested March 10 after police said he revved his engine and then drove his 1998 Mitsubishi Eclipse more than 20 miles over the speed limit on Guadalupe Road.
He revealed to police he carried a Mexican ID, and an officer contacted U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, who deported Cisneros and his two passengers, Johany Nafarrate, 17, and Omar Galvez-Alejandro, 16.
Aldo Castaneda, director of the nonprofit Phoenix Immigration Center, said he often gets complaints that Gilbert police officers in particular are likely to contact immigration authorities when illegal residents are arrested.
He said Berman and the town owes Hispanics an apology. “The police officers are playing immigration officers,” he said. “That’s not their job.”
Current Gilbert police policy gives officers discretion on whether to turn over illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Town Councilman Don Skousen said the policy is not meant to attack illegal immigrants, but to avoid the dangers of an unlicensed and uninsured resident who is violating law and, for instance, driving dangerously, and unlikely to help pay for any damages.
“It’s not racial profiling,” he said. “They stop a vehicle for doing something wrong, if it happens to be a person undocumented and they discover that, they turn it over to immigration (officials).”