By Elias Miller
BU News Service
BOSTON — Alejandra St. Guillen wants to bring institutional change to the issues of gun violence, income inequality and mass incarceration. Julia Mejia wants to address poverty on as many levels in the city as possible.
In a city where one in five residents are Hispanic or Latino, both Guillen and Mejia are hoping to be the first Latina councilor in Boston’s City Council history. The 13-member council has not had a Latino member since Felix G. Arroyo left office in 2013.
In the September preliminary vote, St. Guillen finished in fourth and Mejia followed in fifth place, meaning it’s likely one or both of them has a shot at winning one of the four At-Large seats in the Nov. 5 municipal election.
St. Guillen, 42, was born and raised in Mission Hill. She attended Boston Latin Academy and graduated in 1999 from Wesleyan University in Connecticut as an Economics and African American Studies double major. She holds a master’s degree in education from the City College of New York.
In 2014, Mayor Martin Walsh appointed St. Guillen to direct the Office of Immigrant Advancement. She left in December to focus on her campaign.
During her time with the Office for Immigrant Advancement, St. Guillen helped create the Greater Boston Immigrant Defense Fund, a funding collaborative intended to benefit the Greater Boston area’s immigrant and refugee communities.
“A lot of immigrant families are mixed status,” St. Guillen said. “It might be a household where the parents are undocumented, or the dad is undocumented and the kids are U.S. citizens, but the fear is the same. The kids are going to observe that fear, internalize it and suffer because of it.”
Earlier this month, St. Guillen said the office’s outreach has been positive, and praises Boston’s position as a sanctuary city for immigrants. Even so, she would rather see less cooperation between Boston’s police force and the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
“The police are there to protect and to serve,” she said. “They’re not there to enforce immigration policy.”
Earlier this month, documents obtained by WBUR Public Radio unearthed emails showing regular communication and partnership between ICE and the Boston police. St. Guillen said she would favor increased scrutiny toward how the two work hand-in-hand.
“I think that really digging deep into how school police reports get in the hands of ICE and making sure there is a clear wall there would do a lot to alleviate the fear, and the perpetuation of the school-to-deportation pipeline.”
Such reforms, in her view, must come from a clear separation from federal immigration enforcement and local policing.
“Is public safety compromised if there is not information sharing between ICE and BPD? I think no.”
Mejia, 49, is a community organizer born in the Dominican Republic. At the age of five, she came to the U.S. with her mother, who entered the country on a visa that then expired, rendering Mejia’s mother an undocumented immigrant.
Mejia would like to see better results from the city’s Office of Immigrant Advancement.
“I look at parents who are undocumented and are afraid to call the school to figure out a grade, a test score or whatever the case is. We haven’t created a space where people feel safe,” she said.
Both candidates said they were inspired to run by the election of President Donald Trump.
“It’s been a terrible, terrible impact,” said St. Guillen of Trump’s election. “Crime reporting is down and domestic violence reporting is down. Medical appointments are down. There’s just so much uncertainty that people would rather not take the risk.”
She echoes concerns faced by people under Temporary Protected Status, temporary rights to residency afforded to some immigrants fleeing armed conflict or natural disaster.
“Trump will put something forward, it’ll get challenged, so they’re in this limbo.”
Mejia points to election night 2016 as a turning point in her decision to run for public office.
“I was afraid to wake my daughter. She was six at the time. I told her the news and she asked, ‘are you going to have to leave the country?’” she said. “My mom and I both became U.S. citizens. So no one’s taking us out. We’re good.”
Another driving factor for her was then-At-Large Councilor Ayanna Pressley’s election to the U.S. House. Among others, Pressley has endorsed both St. Guillen and Mejia for the Boston City Council, notably over her former colleague Mike Flaherty and successor Althea Garrison.
Horace Small, founder and executive director of Boston’s Union of Minority Neighborhoods, said both of them have “a serious shot.” He expects a vacancy to be left by one of the current city councilors.
“I don’t think Althea Garrison will be back,” he said.
In September, both St. Guillen and Mejia garnered more votes than Garrison, who in January was sworn into the council as Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s replacement.
By the city’s rules, once Pressley left the council to be sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives, her seat went to the nearest runner-up in the 2017 municipal election: that year, Garrison placed a distant fifth.
“Horace’s evaluation is just a bit biased. Councilor Garrison is working very hard in this campaign and will not go down without a fight,” Garrison’s chief of staff Mark Murphy said in a response.
Murphy compared Garrison to Donald Trump, who many in Massachusetts felt would be a distant runner up to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election. Garrison is the only self-identified conservative on the city council, after registering as Republican, Democrat and Independent several times since 1982. She has recently been a very vocal supporter of the president.
“I would be willing to bet that Horace also thought that Hillary Clinton would easily beat Donald Trump in 2016 and was ‘shocked’ that Clinton didn’t win so easily,” added Murphy. “Polls and a very simplistic liberal analysis like Horace’s do not speak for the silent majority of the people, even in Boston.”
For Small, a significant difference between the two Latina candidates relates to their political experience and public background.
“One has worked her whole career in government on the inside,” he says. “And then you have this other sister, Julia, who’s been an organizer all her life — and she’s used to working in the community. She’s the ultimate outsider.”
Meija says there is no competition between her and St. Guillen.
“You have four votes. When four white men run, nobody says anything. What makes you think you have to choose between one and the other?”