Sunday, April 10, 2011

Immigration attorney on hunger strike (The Press Democrat)

Immigration attorney on hunger strike

Published: Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 3:00 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, April 9, 2011 at 11:11 p.m.

In the first days he felt more energy than usual. Then came weariness. Then he was lightheaded.

But Santa Rosa immigration attorney Richard Coshnear has persisted in a hunger strike which today reaches its 11th day.

In refusing to eat, the 53-year-old activist has become an extreme example of the passions over illegal immigration issues.

Coshnear, who is drinking water and fruit juice, said he is trying to force Sonoma County supervisors to look into and stop local cooperation with federal immigration authorities, raise public awareness, and energize immigrants to pressure the board.

“I want to see that the county actually does something, that the supervisors take up the issue and address it fully,” he said.

Specifically, Coshnear wants supervisors to act on a recommendation made in February by the county's Commission on Human Rights.

The commission urged the board to adopt a County of Family Unity ordinance prohibiting local resources from being used to help enforce federal immigration laws except in cases involving human trafficking or people convicted of serious or violent felonies.

The Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a branch of the Homeland Security Department, “is a federal operation and we are expected to comply with that,” said First District Supervisor Valerie Brown.

“There would be no reason to bring a resolution before the board that we couldn't support,” she said. “I certainly appreciate the passion Mr. Coshnear has for this issue, but we know what we can do by law and what we can't,” she said.

Board Chairman Efren Carrillo criticized Coshnear's arguments and said the commission report contained errors that need to be fixed and that had made it “divisive to an extent.”

He also noted that in summer 2010, when the federal Secure Communities program took effect, he wrote state legislators urging them to halt its deployment at the local level until there was a comprehensive overhaul of immigration laws.

“It's irresponsible to say that we've been unresponsive,” he said.

News about Coshnear's hunger strike has spread quickly among immigration rights activists.

“He's ignited a spark in us,” said Evelina Molina of Santa Rosa, an organizer with Alianza de Las Madres Activas por Justicia, or the Alliance of the Mothers Active for Justice.

Molina said activists are planning actions to support Coshnear — including 24-hour fasts — and that his strike has raised the bar for their efforts.

“It's kind of like a wake-up call to us, that we have to step up our game,” said Molina, who is also a member of the Human Rights Commission, but said she is not speaking on its behalf.

Asked how far he intends to take his hunger strike, Coshnear, who stands 5-foot-11 and weighs about 180 pounds, said, “That's a tough question.”

He said he is prepared to stop his strike if his physical condition interferes with his ability to represent clients in several important cases in late April. Otherwise, he plans to maintain it until he accomplishes his goal.

“I'm going to maintain it until I hear from a supervisor that the board is going to take up the issue and take it up seriously,” he said.

Asked what would happen if Coshnear were to fall seriously ill, Brown said: “I really hope he takes care of himself. I think he's of no use to anybody if he doesn't, and he does have important issues that he has take care of.”

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