Residents from the San Antonio’s most ethnically diverse city council district sought pledges from candidates in the May 6 election to fight Islamophobia and protect their neighbors, thousands of whom are refugees and immigrants.
The comments came at the Muslim Children Education and Civic Center on April 14 as District 8 city council candidates Tony Valdivia, Manny Pelaez, Paul Martin, Cynthia Brehm and Pat Stout faced questions from moderator Sakib Shaikh and from an audience of about 120 people.
Shaikh challenged the candidates to say how they would improve traffic congestion, and better protect trees and parks, then the forum turned passionate as audience members quizzed the candidates. (Scroll down to see full video of the forum.)
City Council District 8 is home to nearly 8,000 refugees and thousands of Muslim families. With landmarks including the University of Texas at San Antonio, the Medical Center, La Cantera and Hardberger Park, the district has been represented since 2013 by Ron Nirenberg, who is now running for mayor of San Antonio in the May 6 election.
(see the map http://www.sanantonio.gov/Portals/0/Files/GIS/PoliticalMaps/CCD8-Map8.5x11.pdf)
When his turn came to ask a question, Hussain Afzal read from Facebook page printouts and addressed Brehm by her first name: “Cynthia, looking through your Facebook page, I found the following comments you made about refugees coming to Texas, and I quote: ‘We don’t want them, we don't need them, send them back...they can't speak the language, they can't assimilate because they are foreigners.’
You go so far as to call them terrorists,” he said. “Do you stand by these comments and what can you tell us about them?” (watch his full question here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=39m18s)
His question was immediately followed by Dr. Dee Jalal. “My question is about Islamophobia and the bullying of our children and women,” she said. “I am receiving daily accounts of a lot of hate crimes against our community all over the United States of America. My question is, how can we take measures in the beautiful City of San Antonio to make it really a model for peace and coexistence?” (watch her full question here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=40m34s)
Then refugee advocate Jonathan Ryan, executive director of RAICES weighed in: “We are seeing attacks on communities like has never happened before. And it is not just theoretical. We have a bill in the Senate of Texas, SB4, that is prepared to turn our cities into instruments of oppression, profiling, arresting, willy nilly, members of the community, based on how they look,” said Ryan. “...You cannot say this is a Washington issue, this is a San Antonio issue. What are you going to do to protect me, my friends and our communities?” (watch his full question here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=42m01s)
Last, a software engineer delivered his challenge: “My question is… where do we belong in America? What do you guys actually believe about Muslims? What do you believe our position in San Antonio is supposed to be? Are we Americans, are we different, do we not belong?” (watch his full question here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=44m31s)
Brehm, did not immediately address the Facebook claim, instead referring to her family members who are Hispanic. “ If you are an American citizen you have every right to be here. And if you have a visa, you have every right to be here,” Brehm said. “And you shouldn’t be discriminated against. It’s against the law.” (watch her full answer here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=50m44s)
Pelaez, an attorney, said San Antonio should go on the offense. “What would I do if I found out that someone was being discriminated against by a law, or feeling unsafe in their home, or attacked? I will stand with you and I would sue whoever it was for you -- for free. That is what the city needs to do more often,” he said. (watch his full answer here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=46m48s)
Valdivia said his father was an immigrant who came to the U.S. at 15, not knowing any English and went on to graduate from the University of Michigan. “I hear about the fear that the refugee community has, it breaks my heart. And to hear that we have another candidate who said something that immigrants who come here, if they do not learn the language they don’t belong, that makes me upset,” said Valdivia.
“I am here to stand up for everybody so they can live the American Dream because we’re all Americans here.” (watch his full answer here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=48m35s)
Stout, a businesswoman, cited her own journey. “I am an immigrant just like you. I came from Mexico, got my green card and my U.S. citizenship and I know how you feel,” she said. “We immigrants we bring a lot to this country.” (watch her full answer here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=49m32s)
Two candidates used their closing statements to prod Brehm.
“Cynthia, John asked you about six or seven statements that you made on your Facebook page calling refugees terrorists. Those people escaped the worst of the worst and are seeking only neighbors and friends and kindness,” said Pelaez. “And you’re… have the gall to sit here and tell these people that it’s wrong to not like people… What are you talking about?” (see his full question here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=52m07s)
Valdivia was next. “It’s discouraging to hear you say that you don't want to accept refugees. I am a Christian and I believe in the scripture, Jesus tells us whatever you do to to the least of us we do to him. So if we see people who are hurting, who are hungry, who are poor it is our job to help,” he said. (see his full statement here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=52m51s)
Brehm said the accusations about her Facebook page were not fair. “I don't recall saying that, and even if I did, I’d want to see what context it was said in,” she said. (see her full answer here: https://youtu.be/6hjvNnom1ug?t=54m11s)
In the first part of the forum, Shaikh asked the candidates to address issues ranging from traffic congestion to parks, cultural events and beautification of District 8. These links take you to the questions and answers on the video:
Opening statements from all candidates: https://youtu.be/G8vVV794EYM?t=3m13s
Question: How will you address traffic congestion and what specific solutions would you provide? https://youtu.be/G8vVV794EYM?t=15m15s
Question: What will you do to increase park visitation and ensure further development of new parks? https://youtu.be/G8vVV794EYM?t=23m57s
Question: Every District has its own design. What is your plan for beautification of our district? https://youtu.be/G8vVV794EYM?t=30m49s
Question: District 8 is almost never associated with any artistic or cultural events. Why is that and would you like to see more cultural events in the district? https://youtu.be/G8vVV794EYM?t=37m31s
Candidate Forum Part 1