The award was given to state Sen. Rick Jones, R-Grand Ledge, at a dinner sponsored by the Capital Area Cesar Chavez Commission, the Hispanic/ Latino Commission of Michigan and the Michigan Hispanic Legislative Caucus.
"[Cesar Chavez] would be turning in his grave right now," said Al Salas, a former member of the Capitol Area Cesar Chavez Commission and founder of a successor group, the Lansing for Cesar E. Chavez Committee. "It's not something the Hispanic community will approve of. [Rick Jones'] rhetoric is negative toward the Hispanic community."
Noel Garcia Jr., a retired Lansing police lieutenant and member of the Hispanic- Latino Commission, said he didn't know about the award until he went to the dinner.
"It was news to me, as it was to many who were in attendance," Garcia said. "[In] three years of meetings — and I have been to most all of them in my three-year term — I don't recall any discussion, any action or any resolution having been being made for any type of award for Sen. Jones." Garcia is one of 15 members of the commission, appointed by the governor for three-year terms. The commission is part of the state Department of Civil Rights.
In a phone interview Monday, Marylou Alvarez Mason, executive director of the Hispanic/Latino Commission, said Jones got the award, in part, for furnishing the commission with oversized prop checks handed to student scholarship recipients each year.
"Senator Jones has always done those great big checks that they print out," Mason said. "Every year since he's been an elected official, he's made them for us."
Mason said Jones was chosen for the award three years ago by a committee of several students from Lansing Community College. She said he wasn't given the award sooner because this was the first year he could attend the dinner.
In a phone interview Monday, Jones said he's worked with the Hispanic Latino Commission for 11 years, "helping them any way I could."
"Sometimes they want me to assist them with creating the large plastic checks when they're handing out awards to children to go to school," Jones said.
Garcia said he left the Oct. 30 dinner early because of a family matter but got an earful in the following days from constituents in Lansing's Hispanic community about the award to Jones, some of whom told him they walked out on the dinner because of the award.
"I don't have any ill will toward Sen. Jones," Garcia said, "but I do understand the concerns of the Hispanic community [about his] sponsorship of this bill."
Senate Bill 0445, the "sanctuary policy prohibition act," was referred to the Judiciary Committee in September, with Jones, who chairs the committee, listed as a cosponsor. The bill, if signed into law, would bar cities from adopting "sanctuary" policies that "limit or prohibit" local officials from reporting suspected illegal immigrants to federal authorities. If police officers have probable cause to believe that a person under arrest is not "legally present" in the United States, they would be required to report that person to federal immigration officials. Any cities that fail to comply would lose their federal revenue sharing funds.
"I don't recall cosponsoring it," Jones said Monday. "I may have."
John Castillo, a 30-year administrator in the state Department of Civil Rights, said the bill's purpose is clear. "Hispanics would be the group targeted," he said. "In the past, Hispanics have been stopped on the streets of Lansing, at the bus depot, and asked to provide proof — not Canadians, not individuals from Europe."
Castillo said Jones has a "long history of being anti-immigration."
In 2007, at Jones' request, then-Michigan attorney general Mike Cox ruled that illegal immigrants are ineligible for driver’s licenses. The ruling angered the Hispanic/ Latino community and reversed the policy of Cox's predecessor, Frank Kelley, who said that such a bar might violate the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection clause.
"Is this award justified and is it in the spirit of Cesar Chavez?" Castillo asked. "I think not."
Monday afternoon, Garcia said he questioned Mason about the award after hearing complaints from constituents.
"It's kind of concerning at this time that we haven't had any clear understanding of how or who made the decision to give this award to Mr. Jones," Garcia said.
The same afternoon, Mason said she hadn't heard from anyone with questions about the award. "Nobody has called me directly to say, 'What's the big idea?' or 'What did you do?'" she said.
Castillo said he talked with "15 or 20 people throughout the community, and it is unclear to anyone as to how and why he got that award."
Mason said Monday that each year, a three- or four-member LCC student committee reviews nominations for several awards given by the Hispanic/Latino Commission, including scholarship recipients, Educator of the Year, Businessperson of the Year, and special recognition awards such as the one that went to Jones.
Often, Mason said, the students sifting through the nominations are from another state or country. It's done that way, she explained, to avoid "anybody being biased as far as nominating someone that they know who they are or what they do or anything like that."
"I'm the only one in the room with the committee," she added.
In addition to providing the big plastic checks, Mason said, Jones has never missed the annual forum where legislators meet with constituents on Michigan Hispanic Advocacy Day. She added, however, that the forum was only started in 2010 and not held in 2011. Mason praised Jones for staying at the forum "the whole day" in 2014. It was unclear how that figured into the LCC students' decision in 2012 to give Jones the award.
Although this year's award to Jones was decided upon three years ago, Mason said, it wasn't reviewed this year. She said she hadn't heard of Senate Bill 0445. "Is it something they're talking about that's kind of controversial now?" she asked Monday. "I'd have to look at it and see what they're talking about."