Disrupted Lives, Silent Streets: Immigration Sweeps Unsettle California

Disrupted Lives, Silent Streets: Immigration Sweeps Unsettle California

Commentary, Gabriel Lerner,
Pacific News Service, Jun 18, 2004

EDITOR’S NOTE: Immigration sweeps in Southern California cities far from the Mexican border have disrupted the lives of millions, and may be a trial run for more election-year crackdowns on undocumented immigrants, writes PNS contributor Gabriel Lerner, state and national editor of the Los Angeles-based daily La Opinion, the nation’s largest Spanish-language newspaper.

LOS ANGELES– Across Southern California, in Ontario, Corona and Escondido, cities with Latino majorities, the streets are practically deserted. Storeowners complain of low sales. Residents avoid being seen in public, afraid that the U.S. Border Patrol will detain them and take them away.

Mothers call newspapers or immigrant organizations to ask, «Should we take our kids to school today?» and «Is there no danger?»

Outside on the streets, patrols roam: It’s the immigration police, who detain people to find out if they are in the country legally. If they’re not, residents are taken to detention centers to be processed for deportation to Mexico.

Suddenly, the script of the recent «mockumentary» film, «A Day Without a Mexican,» seems to have become reality, but without the comedy. Right now in California there are sick people who don’t dare go to clinics, business owners who fret about a 60 percent drop in sales, women who call their acquaintances asking if it’s safe to go shopping.

In short, millions of people — both longtime residents and recent immigrants — are beset by the fear of being expelled.

«Those who didn’t regularize their immigration status,» says Raúl Villarreal, spokesman for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, «should have known that one day they would be found.» Besides, he adds, «enforcing the law» is nothing new; similar immigration enforcement activities have been conducted in Texas and the Southwest.

At the headquarters of immigrant rights organizations, telephones don’t stop ringing. Many of the calls come from terrorized residents: «I’m calling to report a sweep at the Chino swap meet,» says one caller. «Police are collaborating with La Migra (immigration agents).»

At times the person who calls is an English-speaker who won’t accept being spoken to in Spanish. «I’m calling to protest against the illegals, because it’s time that they go back,» one says. Some are more threatening, conflating their hatred of undocumented immigrants with the organization itself: «Leave, we’ll burn your building down.»

Such is life in a season of immigration sweeps in Southern California. The authorities hate the word «sweeps» because it connotes random checks. They insist that the raids are part of a search for coyotes (human traffickers) through operations based on specific information obtained from local and state police and «people in the community.»

Around 500 undocumented immigrants have been detained since the beginning of June, when a mobile unit of 12 agents from the U.S. Border Patrol Station in Temecula, Calif. began to operate. The unit’s jurisdiction is 3,000 square miles. The large radius of action means the unit can act autonomously, without having to respond to orders from superiors.

U.S. Border Patrol spokespeople insist that there is no new policy behind the sweeps, and that there is no reason for alarm.

So, why is the Latino community so alarmed? Why was there such a clamor that even the Mexican President Vicente Fox had to complain about «the abuses» during a trip to Chicago? Why did up to 10,000 people march in protest — many joining the marches spontaneously — in Ontario, Pomona, Pasadena and other cities?

The fears are not unfounded; they are based on what people are experiencing. The population of undocumented immigrants in the state is of course much larger than the 500 people detained. Some even put the number as high as 7 million. In the United States as a whole there are 3 million children who are U.S. citizens but whose parents are undocumented.

Some undocumented immigrants have lived here 10, 15, 20 years but have not legalized their status due to apprehension, apathy, a stubborn conservatism, ignorance or poverty. Because of the comfort of their daily routines — they pay taxes, have jobs, families, refrigerators filled with food — the undocumented tend to gradually achieve a feeling of safety.

The recent raids have punctured that thin film of security, horrifying millions of people and making them feel hunted.

Fear is the source of rumors that the detentions have expanded to Norwalk, Long Beach, Pasadena, San Fernando, San Bernardino, Santa Ana, Huntington Park, Santa Barbara — cities where the Border Patrol denies carrying out operations.

The rumors increase the sensation of disquiet and vulnerability, feed on themselves, multiply and worsen the climate of intimidation. There’s an overriding feeling that in this country, immigrants, even the well-established ones, are not safe.

Immigration raids far from the border were common in Southern California until 1994, when the emphasis shifted to military-style surveillance directly along highly trafficked border areas. Aggressive interior enforcement decreased, and when it did recur, mass protests often embarrassed the Border Patrol and other agencies into retreat.

The recent operations — call them sweeps or patrols — could continue, as government spokespeople have promised they will. They could expand to other areas if, as some people suspect, the recent detentions were a kind of pilot plan.

If they do continue, the sweeps could destroy the security of millions of people all over the country, generate more controversy and animosity and become an election-year issue.

A decade ago, anti-immigrant ballot initiatives sparked the emergence of a social protest movement in solidarity with immigrants. If the raids continue, there may be another resurgence of comparable pro-immigrant political activism.

Related stories:

Immigration Raids in California Test Spanish-Language Media

Border Patrol Sweeps Examples of Racial Profiling, Activists Say


Jane Smith on Jun 25, 2004 19:29:53, said:

What part of Illegal do you fail to understand. These people broke a federal law by coming here and not signing the guest book. They should be deported last decade. Where do you get the idea they pay taxes? They are working under the table. NO TAXES ARE DEDUCTED! Even if by some chance they do pay income taxes, they have so many deductions to claim, their cost in taxes is ZERO. They cost those of us that do pay taxes billions by needing to add more schools and prisons. Hospitals close their emergency rooms because the illegals do not pay for services they rendered. California is looking more and more like a third nation every day. Used baby diapers are thrown everywhere. Graffitti has increased. Jobs are now available to bilingual\’s only. We are supposed to learn Spanish because they are not required to learn English. COME TO OUR COUNTRY, LEARNING OUR LANGUAGE IS NOT NECESSARY, WE WILL LEARN YOURS. What ever happened to when in Rome? These people need to go back to Mexico and solve Mexico\’s problem. They can start by learning about ZERO POPULATION.

Biff Blanco on Jun 22, 2004 17:34:36, said:

12 patrol officers for 3,000 square miles??? That’s it? This article is much ado about not much at all.

david holzman on Jun 21, 2004 15:08:36, said:

Your commentary seems to assume that illegal immigrants have a right to be here. They don’t. It is high time the US cracked down. There are many reasons why mass immigration, including illegal immigration is bad for California and the US.

1. It is bad for the California economy. The average Californian family pays an extra $1178 in taxes to support transfers of more than $3000 to the average immigrant family, according to a study by the US National Academy of Sciences. The total of these transfers is equivalent to about half the California deficit. Furthermore, illegal aliens take jobs for wages Americans should not have to accept. This is why Walmart is threatening the jobs of Californians at other grocery stores. These people stand to lose hourly wages in the high teens, while Walmart will pay around $6-$7 per hour. Then, rather than fueling the local economy, immigrants in California send $9.6 billion/year to their home countries in Latin America (Info from the International Development Bank, 
IADB.org/exr/remittances/ranking.cfm). (For comparison, Israel, which receives more foreign aid from the US than any other country, receives about $3.6 billion annually.)

Mass immigration added more than 33 million people to the United States in the 1990s, equivalent or a bit less than the current population of California. This rate is expected to continue, bringing the total US population to half a billion shortly after mid-century. Americans use more natural resources than people in any other country, thus there will be major environmental impact for the world. This will also greatly reduce the quality of life in the US. (Think traffic, crowded beaches, etc.)

Senorita Guerra on Jun 19, 2004 16:14:22, said:

The recent increase of \\\»patrols\\\» in southern california is now spreading to northern california and has been an issue in other states as well. I am a resident in the bay area and have been appalled to hear of so many sweeps that are taking place. Contrary to what many Joe Americans think, \\\»they\\\» are not criminals. And that is the truth. Just as the article states many of the immigrants have been in the United States for years, pay taxes and help the economy.
This country is so full of hate that it is even hard to imagine why an immigrant would want to leave their own country to put up with pompous and ignorant individuals who do not care to step outside of the crystal and dimand bubble that they have created. Of course the possibilities are plenteous, however, at what price are we willing to risk our sense of safety?
It is those \\\»Joe Americans\\\» who give a bad name to the America that once offered a safe haven for immigrants. Nevertheless, it was not far back when Italians and Germans were being hit with the anti-immigrant sentiments.
I only hope that we can start to look at the bigger picture and focus on the problems at hand. I know that I am not responsible for actions committed by other individuals, so instead of casting off an entire community we should look to penalize individuals who truely are a threat to society. The problem at hand is not that the Border Patrol is looking to detain criminals, but on the other hand, they are looking to make crimilas through racial classification, which is against the law. Frankly, THIS is the truth and YES it does hurt.

Real American on Jun 19, 2004 11:24:31, said:

What about the employers that quietly benefit from this «pool of cheap, no need to pay benefits, easily replaced, without legal protection labor force» ? Growers, meat packers, service industry all provide the incentive and means for illegal immigration. No tangible incentive for legal immigration exists, for desperately poor parents, who want to provide oppurtunities for their children. Let’s not forget the more than a thousand people who have died attempting to enter our southern border in an effort to live here. They are the people who are going to pay into our american social system.
Who is it that needs to blow the flame out under the american melting pot. We sold more salsa than ketchup this year. Toritillas are soon going to out sell bread. Are we trying to stop the tide or is it better to ride the wave.

joe american on Jun 18, 2004 19:45:54, said:

They are criminals and deserve the same treatment vinny fox gives to those that cross mexico’s southern border.The truth hurts does it not.