Carlos Perea will sit on an advisory committee that tracks how Measure X tax revenue is spent.

By ROXANA KOPETMAN | | Orange County Register PUBLISHED: March 10, 2020

Carlos Perea  began advocating for immigrant rights in ninth grade, shortly after he left his home in Mexico and crossed illegally into the United States.

On Wednesday, March 11, Perea adds another notch to his community work. He becomes the newest member of the Santa Ana Measure X Citizen Oversight Committee.

Except he’s not a citizen.

Perea, 28, is the first Santa Ana resident without legal immigration status to be appointed to a city advisory committee, according to city officials. Perea joins a group tracking how the city spends millions each year from a new sales tax.

“It’s important symbolically,” Perea said.

“We’re living in a political time when anything that has to do with undocumented immigrants is seen as negative and weaponized,” he added.

“But we’re building places of belonging and (inclusion) in the city. Being appointed, as ‘undocumented,’ is telling (other) undocumented residents ‘We’re residents also, and we are valued, and we are encouraged to participate in the civic process.’”

The Measure X committee is an advisory committee to the City Council that reviews money raised and spent through the 1.5 cent sales tax Santa Ana voters approved in November, 2018. The tax is expected to generate some $60 million annually. Committee members have already expressed concern that most of the new money is going to pay down city debt, including new police raises.  On Wednesday, Perea’s first day on the all-volunteer committee, the group is expected to work on its first report for the City Council.

Perea is a recipient of DACA, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that grants a temporary but renewable two-year reprieve against deportation. The program, which also offers work permits, is under attack by the Trump administration and its fate is expected to be decided this year by the U.S. Supreme Court.

Even though he has DACA, Perea said he considers himself “undocumented.”

New era of civic engagement

Perea is not the first undocumented resident to be appointed to a commission or board in California.

In 2018, Lizbeth Mateo, a Los Angeles-area immigration attorney, was appointed by then California Sen. Kevin de León to a state advisory committee looking to help underserved students go to college.  The appointment was billed as the first of its kind in California because Mateo, a well-known immigrant-rights activist, does not have legal immigration status. Before that, former Gov. Jerry Brown appointed a student with DACA status to the California State University Board of Trustees.  And in 2015, Huntington Park officials changed a local ordinance – removing a requirement that applicants must be citizens and registered voters – to allow two unauthorized immigrants to participate in local commissions in that Los Angeles County city. (Because they aren’t citizens they weren’t allowed to be paid monthly stipends.)

It’s unknown exactly how many Californians aren’t legal residents though one estimate suggests one in ten people living in Orange County is undocumented.

In 2018, former California Sen. Ricardo Lara, now the state’s insurance commissioner, sought to bring the voices of undocumented people to more public boards.

Lara introduced a bill that would have allowed noncitizens, including those living in the country illegally, to serve on local and state boards and commissions across California. At the time, Lara said that Californians are best served when people from different backgrounds and experiences are allowed to offer their own experience and input in governmental bodies. But Gov. Brown vetoed the bill, saying a citizenship requirement “is the better path.”

Those who oppose allowing undocumented people to serve on advisory groups said that privilege and responsibility should be only for citizens.

In Santa Ana, a predominantly Latino city, existing citizen advisory boards – except a youth commission – require applicants to be registered voters, who by default would have to be citizens. But the City Council did not make citizenship a requirement when approving the qualifications to serve on the newly created Measure X Committee.

Councilman Vicente Sarmiento appointed Perea. In a press release, he praised Perea as an active member of the community and said that Santa Ana “is a leader in celebrating and supporting immigrants, which helps keep our community safe, inclusive and economically vibrant.”

Sarmiento did not reply to questions about why the Measure X committee, which calls itself a ‘citizen’ group, did not include a requirement that its members be citizens.

Still an activist

Perea, a Cal State Long Beach graduate, is a public policy consultant who has helped create and run several pro-immigrant organizations in Orange County.

He praised Santa Ana for eliminating the citizenship requirement to serve on the Measure X committee, saying “Santa Ana continues to lead in uplifting immigrant rights in Orange County by removing barriers to participation in their local government.”

Perea moved to Santa Ana in 2006, after crossing illegally into the country to reunite with his mother. He was 14 then and hadn’t seen his mother in person since he was 4 years old.

While he was still learning English, he became involved at Los Amigos High School with a club that focused on promoting higher education for everyone, including undocumented youth. He met others facing similar issues through what was then called the Orange County Dream Team.

Along with other young advocates, Perea began tracking deportation cases and helped found a group called Raiz, (which has since morphed into Resilience OC, a youth-centered social justice group.) That organization and others successfully advocated for undocumented immigrants, including a push to end a contract between federal immigration authorities and the city’s jail, and a push to stop the Orange County Department of Probation from holding youth on immigration detainers.

“We continued our commitment for just criminal justice and just immigration policies,” Perea said.

Of his new role, Perea said he’s proud “to be part of a community that empowers all of its residents, regardless of their immigration status, to be civically engaged.”

Note: Carlos was a member of the OC Human Relations BRIDGES and Human Relations Ambassadors Programs his last two years of high school. We offer Carlos our sincere congratulations on this appointment!