Issue of racism sparks a fierce City Council debate |

Issue of racism sparks a fierce City Council debate

Tempers flared yesterday when the Aspen City Council was confronted head-on with the issue of racism.

A Centennial Place resident who refused to give her name at the council’s noon work session demanded that Roaring Fork Legal Services require proof of citizenship or residency from people of Latin American descent.

She then called for the legal services provider to arrange for illegal aliens to be deported whenever one makes the mistake of coming through the door.

Roaring Fork Legal Services is a nonprofit, one-lawyer outfit set up last winter at the behest of the local bar association to give advice on civil matters – such as divorce, landlord-tenant disputes, welfare law – to people who can’t otherwise afford an attorney.

The service has been in the headlines recently because of its attempts to educate immigrants, legal and illegal, about immigration law before this fall, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service sets up an enforcement office in Glenwood Springs.

The woman, accompanied by local maintenance man and anti-immigration activist Mike McGarry, initially came to the meeting to ask the council to end its financial support for the organization. The city donated $3,000 last year to help with set-up costs; the county also donated several thousand dollars last year. More than 90 percent of Roaring Fork Legal Services’ money comes from private donors, however.

McGarry and the woman alleged that Roaring Fork Legal Services is advising illegal aliens to marry U.S. citizens or take other actions that will keep INS enforcement officers at bay. McGarry said undocumented aliens who have a baby in this country are taking part in a scam, presumably to secure the right to stay here.

“I don’t think any city or county money should go towards giving advice to illegal aliens,” McGarry said.

During one of the woman’s more passionate rants, city attorney John Worcester interrupted and asked, “Do you appreciate that there are illegal aliens in this country who have legal rights?”

She paused to think, then replied, “No.”

At that point Andrew Kole, an audience member waiting to speak on a different matter, pointed out that people – including illegal aliens – use the legal services because they don’t know what to do. “They’re here, they’re people, and we need to deal with them,” he said. “Maybe they simply need to know the best way to get home.”

Roaring Fork Legal Services executive director Kathy Goudy said last month that the advice she and two paralegals give undocumented aliens is meant to help them obey the law. Often, that means advising them to leave the country; sometimes it means helping someone straighten out their visa status; and sometimes it means informing those who have a reason for being here how to gain documentation.

McGarry, his cohort and their request to cut funding received a mixed reaction from the City Council.

When Councilman Tony Hershey pointed out that asking one racial group, in this case Hispanics, for identification is racist and might be illegal, McGarry raised his voice and snapped back, “Don’t even bring up that race crap with me.”

Hershey agreed with Worcester that illegal aliens have some legal rights that must be respected. Both said it was better for the community if illegal aliens were aware of the law and the consequences of their undocumented status. Hershey, an attorney, also noted that attorneys are bound by attorney-client privilege, and cannot become enforcement agents for the Immigration and Naturalization Service.

Hershey is doing pro bono work for Roaring Fork Legal Services, and Worcester sits on its board.

Councilmen Tom McCabe and Terry Paulson showed some sympathy with McGarry’s concerns, especially when it comes to immigration’s effects on employment.

McCabe lamented over the fact that employers are able to pay less to everybody because many immigrants, especially illegal immigrants, are willing to work for less. Without such wage pressures, McCabe said, “perhaps some of our fellow citizens who are having a hard time surviving on one job could survive on one job.”

Councilman Jim Markalunas kept his comments brief, but expressed much less sympathy for McGarry and the woman. He suggested they read a book about the penal colonies of Australia and the Bible.

In the end, Mayor Rachel Richards’ point that the city doesn’t normally attach conditions to money granted to nonprofits won the support of the entire council.

“I, for one, wouldn’t pull support for this agency,” she said. “The city hasn’t used money to dictate how nonprofits behave in the past. I think it’s important to look at the overall mission of a nonprofit and decide whether to support it.”

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