This tiny California town's battle over 'sanctuary city' status started long before Trump

Maywood’s decision to declare itself a sanctuary city did not sit well with Enrique Curiel.

To the Mexican immigrant and U.S citizen, the move 11 years ago was City Hall acting too radical to score points with Maywood’s large immigrant population. 

Becoming a sanctuary city turned the small southeast Los Angeles County suburb into a national lightning rod.

Conservative talk-radio hosts lit into Maywood. Members of the Minutemen Project, an anti-illegal-immigration group that patrols the border, descended on the town, and City Hall was inundated with outraged messages from across the U.S. 

More than a decade later, President Trump has vowed to crack down on immigrants in the country illegally and threatened to punish sanctuary cities by denying federal funds.  

And that has caused Curiel, 62, to look at Maywood’s status as a sanctuary city in a different light. 

“Let them give Trump a good fight,” Curiel said. “He’s screwing everything up but the main people he’s trying to screw … is our own people.”

Maywood is among an estimated 400 sanctuary cities and counties in the country. The city, which has a total operating budget of $13 million, receives about $1.1 million in federal funds for the current fiscal year. 

In the debate over sanctuary cities, most of the attention has fallen on large cities, such as L.A. and New York, where city leaders have struck a defiant tone against Trump.

But few places know what it’s like to be in the eye of the storm like tiny Maywood, which became a sanctuary city at a time when it was unusual to do so. 

In 2006, Maywood was 96% Latino. Officially the city had just under 30,000 residents. About 45% of the city’s residents are foreign born. 

Maywood’s decision years ago to become a sanctuary city infuriated some residents. Many of the critics were older white residents and more conservative Latinos. 

“I disagree with sanctuary cities because it breaks federal law,” said Sandra Orozco, a longtime Maywood resident and activist. “I don't like that it's interfering with the federal funding.”

At that time, many states and cities were trying to crack down on illegal immigration.

In Washington, the House of Representatives tried to get a law passed that made it a crime to assist immigrants illegally living in the country. Massive protests broke out across the U.S., including one in Los Angeles that drew more than 500,000 people.

But Maywood officials were determined to buck that trend. And one spark was police checkpoints in the city of 1.2 square miles. 

The roadblocks, which started in the 1990s, led to vehicles being impounded for up to 30 days. At times, the storage fees were so high that some drivers forfeited their cars. 

The checkpoints were often held during rush hour and created traffic jams that stretched into neighboring cities. The owner of Maywood Club Tow even provided free catering trucks for officers.

The checkpoints generated hundreds of thousands of dollars for the towing company and the city.

David Velazquez, then a priest at St. Rose of Lima Roman Catholic Church, said he was overwhelmed with complaints about the checkpoints, which seemed more aimed at catching unlicensed immigrant drivers.

“Some people didn’t have the money; they lost their jobs, their homes and the kids couldn’t go to school. It was really a disaster,” Velazquez said.  Police “claimed they were looking for drunk drivers but it was really an excuse to persecute immigrants.” 

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Chris Alexakisgovernment, L.A., C.A.