Checking up on Chávez 

Opponents Question Petitioners' Citizenship Status

HERE WE GO AGAIN: A new controversy has arisen in the César E. Chávez street-renaming process. But this time, an ad hoc group hoping to preserve 39th Avenue has brought the powder-keg issue of immigration into the fray.

When Interstate Avenue almost became César E. Chávez Boulevard in 2007, preservation advocates insisted their motivations for resisting the name change were purely economic and civic. They argued it would cost too much to replace business stationary and that city council didn't follow its own street-renaming process.

This year, it's a different story. The recently formed "Save 39th Avenue Committee" has issued a special report alleging that many of the signatures on a petition to rename 39th are from illegal immigrants. The report says the city failed to verify the status of non-registered voters as legal residents of the United States.

Street-renaming applications need a minimum of 2,500 signatures from "legal residents of the city at large" according to a September memo from the city auditor's office. The city attorney defines a "legal resident" as "someone who lives within the city of Portland and intends to make Portland their home."

"It seems odd that someone can be illegally residing in the US and legally residing in the city of Portland," says Eric Fruits, an economist who wrote the Save 39th report and runs the committee's website.

There are also some fairly complex statistical concerns in the report about how the city auditor's office verified the signatures the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee submitted. Fruits alleges the city did not adhere to the signature verification process it set forth in its September memo. Doing his own calculations in accordance with the city's verification plan, Fruits found the pro-Chávez campaign fell 22 signatures short of the city's required 2,500.

In response, City Auditor LaVonne Griffin-Valade announced last Wednesday, June 3, that their process was valid, and its math is sound.

"We were given the green light," says Marta Guembes, head of the César E. Chávez Boulevard Committee. "If we did not have valid signatures, the process wouldn't have started."

It's still unclear whether Fruits' arguments are gaining traction on city council, but council will vote on the rename effort on June 23.

"Why was the city so lax in the first go-around?" Fruits says. "It gives the impression that the city process seems to be weighted toward some preordained result."

The city's director of human relations, María Lisa Johnson, supports the rename, but acknowledges it is a controversial issue.

"My sense is that they are trying to discredit the process because they don't agree with it," Johnson says. "It's disheartening."

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