By 10 p.m. on Oct. 4, the Escondido City Council chambers had finally emptied. The City Council members sagged in their chairs, neither visibly elated nor disappointed, but they all seemed suddenly a little older. With an audience of 350 people inside and untold more outside, the council had spent four hours listening to 68 public speakers accuse various members, by name, of racism, Nazism, spinelessness, even Communism. But three of the five of them-Councilmembers Marie Waldron, Sam Abed, and Ed Gallo-had succeeded in passing an ordinance that punishes landlords for renting to illegal immigrants, the nation's second such draconian anti-illegal immigration law.
Outside City Hall, the immigrant activists stood in the darkness of Grape Day Park to hold a candlelight vigil. They had not been able to fit in council chambers and had watched the meeting on TVs set up in the park. They had begun to gather near City Hall at 4 p.m., standing around in small groups. By 7 p.m., when the meeting officially began, the crowd numbered in the hundreds. Police from several jurisdictions had formed a double line that ran from the doors of City Hall to the street, dividing the courtyard in half. The activists were young and energetic. Their chanting and yelling lasted for hours and they waved a mixture of Mexican and American flags, until the meeting started. Afterward, they vowed to keep fighting. The American Civil Liberties Union promised legal challenges.
On the other side of the police officers, the anti-illegal-immigration group, the Minutemen, and their supporters, set up their own signs and flags in the early afternoon. Their posters were more elaborate, including photocopied pictures of police officers slain by illegal immigrants and demands for President Bush's resignation. The signs' faded writing and bent corners were battle scars of rallies past. The crowd gathered around a microphone and listened to folks taking turns speaking, cheering often, and demanding quiet and respect from the immigrant activists on the other side. In comparison, the Minutemen were older and whiter, though not all old and not all white. At this rally they had about half as many people as the immigrant advocates.
The city of Escondido sits 43 miles north of Tijuana, along a narrow band of civilization between desert mountains and the Pacific Ocean. Approximately 140,000 residents sleep there every night, and 41 percent of them are Latino. Councilmember Abed claims that 35,000 Escondidans are illegal, but his figure is an extrapolation based on a statistical projection applied to nearby Vista. No one knows how many are undocumented. For certain, Escondido has mushroomed in population, adding 25,000 citizens between 1990 and 2000, a 22-percent growth rate. At the same time, the Latino population has grown from 23 percent to 41 percent of the total, while the white population has declined by 3 percent.
Nationally, the number of illegal immigrants rose from 8.4 million in 2000 to 11.1 million in 2005, with 56 percent of them coming from Mexico, according to the Pew Hispanic Center. With 500,000 new migrants crossing the border illegally every year, they represent a third of the new immigrants entering the country. Undocumented workers have spread northward from their traditional work areas in the Southwest to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, New York and Wisconsin.
The federal government has underfunded and undermanned the border guard since its creation. Though immigration reform was passed in 1986 and then again in 1996, placing substantial penalties on employers for hiring illegal immigrants, enforcement has been lax.
Following the immigration marches of the spring , when thousands of non-citizens demanded civil rights, the nation was reminded again that in its midst lived millions of individuals who work without citizenship. President Bush and moderate Republicans fought for a program of guest workers with a route to citizenship. Hardcore conservatives like San Diego Rep. Duncan Hunter demanded strict enforcement and ultimately became the impetus behind recent legislation to build a 700-mile border fence between Mexico and the United States. But Congress went into recess with no solution. Where the federal government has failed them, local towns are taking action. Hazleton, Penn., and San Carlos, Calif., preceded Escondido in attempting to create harsh anti-illegal-immigration laws. Farmer's Bend, Texas; Arcadia, Wisc.; and a dozen other small towns around the United States are considering similar legislation.
But are they fighting immigration, or are they fighting another kind of war entirely?
“The reason undocumented people are here working is the same as the reason the people are being downsized and outsourced. It's a global, brutally competitive, international economy with an increasingly interchangeable work force,” said David Gutierrez, a professor of history at UCSD.
Ultimately, there is but a small difference between migrant workers coming up from Mexico and laid-off employees at Ford and GM. Both are victims of labor competition in an increasingly global economy.
Manuel stood with about 13 of his colleagues on the corner of North Santa Fe Avenue and Mesa Drive in Oceanside. It was September, and the weather would heat up later, but that morning it was cool and the men squatted near a wire fence or stood hopefully near the street. There were no stores, no driveways, no reason for anyone to stop there except to pick up day laborers like him and his colleagues. Around 7:30 a.m., a street vendor pulled up and began selling coffee and churrillos.
Most of the workers did not speak English, or at least did not wish to admit to it if they did, but Manuel was friendly and open.
“I used to come here to pick tomatoes-me and my sister,” he said. “It hurt my back. Then there were jobs building. I make more money there.”
Manuel, 24, said he came to this country legally three years ago, a bachelor. He left a small town near Tijuana because, he said, “there is no jobs.”
The gap in the Mexican economy between the rich and the poor is far too wide, and the country's in political chaos. For a short time it looked like the loser of the recent national election, leftist Andrés Manuel López Obrador, would set up his own parallel government. Organized crime founded on the drug trade exercised its power by shooting policemen sitting in a Tijuana café in broad daylight.
Driven by poverty into the United States, Manuel has, to his own mind, achieved at least part of the American dream. He has risen from picking tomatoes at $5.25 an hour to construction earning three times that. The housing slowdown has driven him to restaurant work, and to day labor to make ends meet. He works for more than just himself these days; he is married and has a child living in Vista.
“Sometimes, the Minutemen come here to yell at us, call us names,” he said, then smiled. “Today, it's a little colder-they sleep in.”
Actually, the Minutemen never showed up at Mesa Drive that Saturday, instead appearing at a Home Depot in Encinitas. There were eight of them, all brandishing American flags like sword and shield. They held a large sign that read: “This day labor site closed by order of the Minutemen.” Drivers passing into the Home Depot honked and hollered encouragement or insults.
Founded in 2004 in Arizona, the Minutemen made their name by slinging their personal rifles over their shoulders and marching to the border. They set up chairs and watched for crossers, augmenting the Border Patrol as volunteers. Even President Bush found such fanaticism off-putting and called them vigilantes. They, in turn, refer to him as a traitor and call for his resignation. They prefer hardliners like Hunter or Rep. Brian Bilbray.
In San Diego County, the Minutemen are led by Oceanside resident Jeff Schwilk. They support any move that restricts illegal immigrants, but their bread-and-butter tactic is to strike at the economic heart of illegal immigration, the hiring of day laborers. They go to day-laborer gathering points and shout at potential employers.
A couple pulled up in a station wagon tugging a U-haul trailer to get some help moving. The Minutemen closed in. On this occasion, they were two ladies, who looked to be octogenarians, screaming obscenities at the driver.
The man in the station wagon declined to give his name, but he told CityBeat: “Who am I going to get to move this stuff? Will they [the Minutemen] do it? Of course not.”
The leader for this rally was a Lithuanian mechanical engineer in his 60s named Saul Lisauskas.
“We have a literal invasion of illegals,” he told CityBeat, “They use our welfare and our hospitals and the taxes spent on our behalf, and all in the name of jobs.”
The American economy has always relied on non-citizen labor. Slaves were not only non-citizens, they qualified as only three-fifths of a person in the Constitution. In the 19th century, Chinese immigrants were rarely granted full citizenship, and Italian immigrants sometimes snuck into the country, earning them the racial slur “wop”-“without papers.”
“One of the constants of American history which nobody acknowledges, there have always been non-citizens,” said UCSD's Gutierrez.
Periods of emergency cut off those labor supplies. The Red Scare beginning after the Russian Revolution and then the Depression of the 1930s drove Congress to establish tight quotas based on nationality. The bombing of Pearl Harbor and World War II gave Congress the excuse to tighten up Chinese and Japanese immigration.
“After World War II, we immediately began importing hundreds of thousands of workers from Mexico, and illegal immigrants followed those jobs,” Gutierrez said. “That has been the constant reality on the ground in the country ever since.”
According to the Pew Hispanic Center, migrant laborers now make up an astonishing 5 percent of the American workforce. But as the undocumented labor force has grown, most government services have either become massively more expensive, as with healthcare, or severely underfunded and oversubscribed, as with local schools.
Federal courts have decreed that localities cannot deny healthcare or education based on citizenship status. The passage of Proposition 13 in 1978 hamstrung the ability of local governments to raise funds by capping property taxes at a time of rapidly rising property values. So people like the residents of Escondido and Hazleton watched with frustration as their resources were consumed by people they perceived not to be taxpayers at a time when the overall infrastructure was coming apart. They looked for a scapegoat and found an impoverished group with no vote and little ability to communicate in the same language, the poorest of the poor, the illegal immigrants living among them.
But even illegal immigrants make some contribution back to the communities in which they live. They do not pay income tax, but they do pay property taxes via their rent, which means they contribute to many local costs. They pay sales tax every time they buy something.
Other factors are at play here. Like fear.
Up front, the 9/11 attacks on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon sent many Americans over the edge of panic. Anti-immigration forces took that fear and wielded it like a cudgel to enforce change.
“I had 55 classmates killed in the Twin Towers because of 19 illegal immigrants,” said Escondido City Councilmember Waldron. Again the facts are irrelevant-all of the hijackers entered the country legally, meaning none were illegal immigrants, though a few had some immigration violations. But when she said it, the crowded council chambers went silent.
Again, American history is rife with this kind of fear: The Alien and Sedition Acts were passed back in the first Adams administration, just 10 years after the nation's founding. California passed its share of laws discriminating against Chinese immigrants.
“In the 19th and 20th centuries, the immigration laws were intended to control the labor pool,” said Daniel Widener, a professor of history at UCSD. “I definitely think that the immigration stuff has been really sharply changed by the Sept. 11 attacks.”
No doubt about that. In speeches, anti-immigrant groups like the Minutemen frequently refer to the attacks of 9/11, and they often invoke the symbolism of the Twin Towers to make their point. The 700-mile border fence recently funded by Congress has been justified, in part, as a means to stop terrorists from getting into the county.
“The common leap is the Mexican border is porous; you've got smugglers bringing people across the border; God knows who else you might have-you might have terrorists,” said University of San Diego professor of history Michael Gonzalez. “Perhaps these punitive measures are still a response to this fear of the enemy within.”
The military language of the Minutemen offers another paradigm for illegal immigration. The history of Southern California is one of repeated capture. In San Diego, the Kumeyaay natives lived here for centuries before the Spanish established a mission in the 18th century. Mexico took over after achieving independence in 1821, followed by the capture of the territory by the United States after the Mexican-American war in 1848. The area has been a battle ground between white Europeans and locals for hundreds of years.
To Minutemen like Jeff Schwilk, the migrant population is just another invasion from the south.
“The Mexican government's Institute of Mexicans Abroad committee works to push for open borders and amnesty for 20 million illegal aliens in America,” Schwilk wrote in a letter to the North County Times. “These people have no shame. For many of these activists, their ultimate goal is the taking back of California and the Southwest ‘Aztlan' for Mexico.”
For immigrants, border crossing is a means to economic survival. For Anglo-America, it's a question of cultural survival. This spring, Escondido's western neighbor, Vista, was determined to take on the illegal-immigration issue on its own. There have been illegal laborers working in Vista for a century, but that was when the city held more farmland than office parks. Owners of a local Vons shopping center complained to the City Council that day laborers were harassing their customers. Mayor Morris Vance, for 17 years the city manager before seeking elected office, suggested they hire private security, but the complaint had resonated with the town's 96,000 residents. By 2005, nearly 40 percent of Vista was Latino, and the Anglo population felt threatened.
“It was like they were afraid of us,” said a Latina candidate for Vista City Council, Tina Jillings.
Vance argued publicly for constructing a shelter where day laborers could congregate, but he was shouted down. Vista passed an ordinance that required employers of day laborers to get a license to hire them. To avoid the added hassle, employers just drove to an out-of-town site. The day laborers decamped the shopping center and headed to the site at Mesa Drive, just over the town line in Oceanside.
Vista residents considered it a victory.
“Most of them tell me they are pleased,” Vance told CityBeat. “Longtime residents felt something needed to be done. ”
For Marie Waldron and Escondido, the tide of anti-illegal immigrant fear broke on May 21, 2004. At a city-funded fair held on the grounds of Grant Middle School, the Mexican consulate sent a mobile unit to issue matricula consulair, identity cards accepted by many banks in place of driver's licenses.
“I was appalled that they let a foreign government entity tap into taxpayer-funded computers and issue these matricular cards,” Waldron told CityBeat in a recent interview.
Waldron herself is the child of immigrants (Italy and Ireland) who married a Canadian national. She grew up in the Bronx before moving to San Diego 22 years ago. The attacks of Sept. 11 got her thinking about the problem of illegal immigration. Even before the city fair, she was demanding that city-funded social-service providers cease offering services to undocumented aliens.
The hubbub about the middle school brought Waldron some local notoriety. Immigration became her primary platform in all of her political pursuits. In preparation for a run for state Assembly, she advocated for a state initiative to create a branch of the California state police dedicated to border patrol. Led by Waldron, the Escondido City Council passed a resolution supporting the measure. The initiative failed to get on the ballot, but Waldron picked up the backing of the San Diego Minutemen. Their support was not enough; her bid for the Assembly failed.
With the issue hot in Escondido, and an election approaching (Waldron is running for reelection this year), a new study detailing the poverty of a heavily Mexican area could not have come at a more opportune time. Escondido pumped money into Mission Park for a decade in an effort to revive the city's poorest neighborhood. Commissioned by the city of Escondido, the study detailed the incredible poverty of one small neighborhood: 16,500 people living in 1.5 square miles, half of whom make less than half the Escondido median household income of $42,500. The study found that 84 percent of the population was born in Mexico or Central America. What the study did not examine, however, was legal citizenship. City Council members decided on their own that many of these residents must be illegal and declared that the problem had to be fixed.
The Oct. 4 City Council meeting represented the second step in the process of banning landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. The council had passed the bill in principle in August, but City Attorney Jeffrey Epp used the ensuing weeks to create the language of the law. The October meeting was to approve the specifics. The bill will have a second reading on Oct. 18.
Escondido seems deeply divided. Speakers at the Oct. 4 meeting were 47 to 21 against the ordinance, but the silent majority appears to favor it.
“The e-mails that I received were overwhelmingly in support of the ordinance,” said Councilmember Ron Newman, who voted against it. “You can tell by their comments they never read the ordinance; they were just angry. The people making comments, they just want to see something get done.”
But what, exactly, have they accomplished? To write the law, Epp consulted with lawyers for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), the same group that helped protect Hazleton's ordinance from a constitutional challenge. As a result, the Escondido and Hazleton laws are nearly identical.
The ordinance is “complaint-based,” meaning citizens have to lodge a formal complaint with the city about a building they believe is occupied by illegal immigrants. The landlord must provide proof of citizenship for his tenants, which Escondido will send on to the federal government for verification. Newman pointed out that no federal agency is specified, and no method for verification mentioned. Epp himself told CityBeat that he saw this as “an implementation problem.”
For this reason, among others, Escondido landlords vehemently opposed the law.
“They're just shifting the burden to the landlords,” said property owner and retired attorney Roy Garrett.
Morally speaking, some landlords and business owners are so sickened that they may just sell their businesses and leave Escondido.
“I think it's awful,” said Melissa Inez Walker, who owns artist studios, an art gallery and several residential units. “We have a couple million dollars worth of property. I'd rather put my money in a place where we can grow. I think it's going to make a lot of people not want to be landlords anymore.”
Walker claims to have had conversations with several other landlords who would just pull up stakes if the ordinance survives legal challenge.
About 33 miles south of Escondido and 10 miles north of the Mexican border, in National City, 130 police officers separated 400 pro-immigrant activists from about 200 anti-immigrant activists on Sept. 30. The Minutemen stood with their flags in front of the National City Police Station, their members standing or sitting in lawn chairs and calling chants to the other side. A microphone pointed at a boom box blaring prerecorded speeches and patriotic music. On the other side of National City Boulevard, the activists turned their backs to the street and the police and faced City Hall. Mayor Nick Inzunza came out of the building and handed a document to immigrant-rights activist Enrique Morones.
“I hold in my hand the proclamation declaring National City a sanctuary city,” Morones yelled to the crowd who cheered back in English and Spanish.
As a sanctuary city, National City declares it will not spend municipal funds enforcing federal immigration law. It is not the first to do so: Maywood and Pomona in California, plus El Paso, Texas; Portland, Maine; and Cambridge, Mass., all have similar laws. Though for National City the proclamation has little real impact-the city is already forbidden by its own laws to spend money on immigration enforcement-it does represent a tangible victory for the activists.
In more than a dozen interviews with immigrant activists at rallies and events, few had a clear idea what they were fighting for, only what they were fighting against. Most commonly, they called for “human rights” and “rights for the workers” without any sense of how to get them. The sanctuary movement has motivated the advocates to put counter-pressure on politicians in towns where the Minutemen are already at work. Morones spends his days traveling the country, organizing locals to pressure their town councils into creating sanctuaries.
Naturally, the opposition is furious.
The signs in National City called Mayor Inzunza a slumlord and claimed he supported the law because he profits from filling his apartments with illegal aliens. They're not totally wrong on that. An investigative report by the San Diego Union-Tribune found that Inzunza was a terrible landlord and that many of his 100 rental units were of the rat-hole variety. Illegal immigrants fear complaining about poor conditions and often are abused by just such landlords. In National City and Escondido, the advocates for the poorest of the poor are sometimes in league with some of their worst abusers.
Politicians from around the county condemned Inzunza's move.
“I feel it's treasonous,” said Waldron. “We have laws in our country, and hiring illegal immigrants is a violation of federal law. They made a decision they are going to stand with criminals and violate federal law.”
The Minutemen agree with Waldron's sentiments, and so do many people in San Diego County. For them, the issue is simple: Which part of “illegal” don't you understand?
To UCSD's Gutierrez, Escondido and its siblings-in-arms are fighting the wrong battle.
“If you want to rail against anything,” he said, “I'd suggest railing against NAFTA and the trade treaties.”
Americans have always relied on cheap labor to sustain quality of life, Gutierrez said, and attempting to cut off that labor is both economically dangerous and morally uncharitable. Instead, he predicts a regional citizenship similar to the idea of the European Union, a passport that establishes nationality and provides the right to come work. The enormous mobility to the work force will demand it. But in the short term, Americans have a simple choice.
“It seems to me if you're threatened by people who are different from you, one way to do it is to try to contain that difference, force them to learn English and do all these other cultural contortions that you'd like them to do,” he said. “Or we could help them make adjustments; we could help them integrate instead of assimilate. What's still at issue is what that looks like 20 years from now-there are best-case scenarios and we are not powerless to influence that.”
Neither the sanctuary laws nor the ordinances passed in Hazleton and Escondido serve the kinds of needs Gutierrez is describing. More than anything, they stand in as a war of competing symbols. The federal government will ultimately have to make the call on this, but, in the meantime, every time a small town takes action, it's a vote for one kind of future or the other.