Julian Zatarain may not be able to vote because he is undocumented, but his immigration status didn’t prevent him from accepting an appointment to a city advisory board this week.
The 21-year-old college student and longtime community volunteer was appointed Monday to the parks and recreation commission for Huntington Park, a city in southeast Los Angeles County where 97 percent of its residents are Hispanic. Francisco Medina, 29, also without legal status, was appointed to the health and education commission.
“I’m grateful for this opportunity,” Zatarain told NBC News. “It’s a step in the right direction, and it shows that people like me actually have a voice.”
Zatarain came to the United States from Mexico when he was 13 years old. He doesn’t qualify for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program because he entered the country in September 2007; anyone who entered the country after June 15, 2007 is ineligible. After graduating valedictorian of his class in 2012, he enrolled in Santa Monica Community College where he’s currently studying economics. He eventually wants to become a lawyer.
As parks and recreation commissioner, Zatarain said he plans to create more community gardens and encourage people, especially children, to exercise and use the city’s parks more often. He noted that Huntington Park has the highest percentage of children who are overweight or obese than any other city in California.
There are no state laws that prohibit undocumented immigrants from being appointed as commissioners in California. Both men will have to pass background checks. And unlike other commissioners, they won’t get paid because federal law prohibits that.
"It shows that people like me have a voice," said Zatarain.
Some residents aren’t too happy with the appointment of the two men, saying undocumented immigrants shouldn’t be allowed to serve on any government positions. Meanwhile, some also question whether or not they are qualified for the positions.
“There are more qualified people,” Linda Caraballo, a former councilwoman and resident of Huntington Park, told the Los Angeles Times. “How could they be policy advisors if they can’t even vote for the council members? This is just going to bring media attention, it’s going to create national debate and it is something the city of Huntington Park doesn’t need.”
Huntington Park Councilman Johnny Pineda appointed the two men during a city council meeting on Monday. He defended the appointees, saying they are well-qualified individuals who’ve already done a lot to serve their communities. He also stressed they won’t have any power to make city policy decisions.
“This is not about appointing them because they’re undocumented,” Pineda told NBC News. “They got appointed because of their abilities to help residents in Huntington Park, which is what they’ve already been doing.”
"How can they be policy advisors if they can't even vote for the council members?" said former councilwoman Linda Caraballo, who does not agree with the appointments.
Throughout the years, Zatarain has helped organize blood drives with the Red Cross. He has also volunteered at various community events to help people apply for citizenship and for health care coverage. Medina has also been involved in similar activities, advocating for social justice issues.
“They are two of the most experienced leaders here in city of Huntington Park, and I want all the resident from Huntington Park to benefit from their skills,” Pineda said, adding that city council members for years have struggled to get people to apply for various commissioner positions.