Full tape of interview reveals comments praising Chaldeans in addition to remarks deemed culturally insensitive by cricis
By Miriam Raftery
October 24, 2013 (San Diego’s East County) – At Tuesday’s El Cajon City Council meeting, a crowd of Irarqi Chaldean community members denounced remarks made by Mayor Mark Lewis in an interview with Progressive Magazine for an article published in May. Critics denounce the remarks as insensitive and reinforcing racial stereotypes.
Supporters say the comments were taken out of context. An audiotape of the full one-hour interview posted by RawStory in fact reveals many positive statements made by the Mayor about Chaldeans, as well as the remarks that stirred controversy. Some backers of the Mayor have suggested a financial motive behind the criticism emerging months after the story first ran, noting that a leading critic represents Chaldean store owners chafing under a newly enacted city policy restricting alcohol sales.
The Mayor has apologized for causing offense but insists his remarks were taken out of context. He has issued a statement indicating, “I am extraordinarily proud of all of our citizens and especially those within the Chaldean and other immigrant communities who have made the brave choice to leave the difficult circumstances within their homeland and come to America. They represent an important and respected part of the EI Cajon community and we will continue to welcome them as we always have."
El Cajon is home to an estimated 25,000 to 40,000 Chaldean Christians from Iraq, as well as smaller numbers of Muslims from the Middle East. Council has recently appointed two Chaldeans to its Planning Commission.
Remarks that drew fire included a comment indicating schoolchildren receiving free lunches were being picked up by people driving Mercedes Benz cars. The remark was made in response to a question asking if the “average guy” was resentful of Chaldeans receiving government aid. The Mayor added that there is “a lot of resentment” among some residents who want to know why there is aid for immigrants but not others in need.
He referred to drugs as the “underbelly in the community” and also drew criticism for stating that “The Mexican community feels intimidated, in regards to Chaldeans trying to get into their turf, in regards to selling drugs,” Lewis says. “Same as the Black Africans, Black Americans.” He also referenced prostitution problems with Middle Eastern residents.
While the comments have been over-broad, there is some basis in fact. In 2011, law enforcement broke up an “Iraqi organized crime” ring in El Cajon accused of running drug and gun smuggling operations. According to the FBI, the ring was tied to a Detroit-based Chaldean crime syndicate also involved in human trafficking and other crimes, some linked to a Mexican drug cartel.
The Mayor also spoke candidly in the interview about his efforts to insist that Iraqi businesses serve female customers and the culture’s traditional male dominance, as well as his frustration over the federal government not providing adequate benefits for the many Iraqi refugees it has relocated in El Cajon.
But he also offered praise for Chaldean and other immigrants repeatedly during the interview.
“They’re really great, wonderful people,” he said, noting that some helped the U.S. military in Iraq and that many Chaldeans were forced to flee their homelands due to religious persecution. “A lot of them are loyal Americans as you can get,” he told the Progressive.
He reflected back on Viet Namese boat people who emigrated to El Cajon after the Viet Nam War and noted that the population has successfully assimilated. He also pointed to examples of Iraqis, including Chaldeans, who have begun their road to success locally.
“I love the working habits that they have. They are hard working, up early in the morning, working late at night,” he observed. “They are good residents.” While the immigrants are “learning you have to play by the rules and understanding this isn’t Iraq anymore,” he noted, “slowly but surely they are learning that America is a good land for opportunities.”
The Mayor’s apology didn’t satisfy Mark Arabo, who told 10News he was “very disturbed” and faulted the Mayor for “attacking children and the character of a culture.” Arabo has, however, been leading the battle to oppose the city’s deemed-approve alcohol ordinance which goes into affect next week. That measure restricts sales of single-serve alcohol containers, a measure that impacts many Chaldean-owned merchants who are members of the Neighborhood Markets Association headed by Arabo.
Councilman Gary Kendrick told ECM that he believes the protests over the Mayor’s remarks are motivated by the alcohol ordinance and that Arabo has threatened to work toward removal of Council members and the Mayor as a result.
Congressman Juan Vargas, a Democrat, called on the Republican Mayor to resign for making what he termed “derogatory and racist” remarks that “perpetuate sterotypes of miniroties.”
Mayor Lewis insists that his views are not racist, stating, “I want to be clear that it was never my intention to cast aspersions upon either our Chaldean community or any other minority community in EI Cajon.”
Lewis has long been outspoken on the changing face of his community, which he says now has some 35 to 100 different languages spoken, voicing both empathy and consternation over the impacts those changes bring.
Back in 2010, East County Magazine interviewed Mayor Lewis during his reelection campaign. At the time, he made several comments regarding El Cajon’s Chaldean community. Below is an excerpt from our 2010 interview.
Asked about other challenges facing the City, Lewis noted, “We have a challenge with regard to what the federal government is doing with regard to Iraqi immigrants.” El Cajon has an Iraqi population now estimated at 40,000 or more. “How do we assimilate them into our culture?” the Mayor said, noting that issues include concerns over the “rights and responsibilities of females” since Iraq has a male-dominated culture. He noted that Iraqis need English skills “to get good jobs” and said the City is working with representatives from St. Peter’s and St. Michael’s churches to assist the Chaldeans.
“They are whizzes at math,” said the Mayor, who also praised the Chaldean’s business skills. “They are very family-oriented.” He added that in addition to refugees relocated here by the U.S. government, many Iraqi Chaldean Christians are coming here from Detroit (the largest center for Chaldeans in the U.S.). “They don’t know what a snow shovel is,” he said, noting that the warm weather attracts them to El Cajon.
Returning to Iraq is not an option, he added, since their lives would be in danger.