Costa Mesa's Immigration Deputies, Part 2

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The uproar in the Southern California city of Costa Mesa over a decision to deputize some its police force as immigration agents has exposed deep divisions in the community. In the second of a two-part series, Debra Baer of member station KPCC reports on the debate over how best to enforce federal immigration laws.

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MADELEINE BRAND, host:

This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

NOAH ADAMS, host:

And I'm Noah Adams. In a few minutes, why Norwegian dog sled racers are dominating the Alaska Iditarod.

BRAND: But first, yesterday we heard how the Orange County suburb of Costa Mesa wants to have its police officers act as immigration agents. Today, in the second part of our series Debra Baer of member station KPCC reports that the uproar over that plan is exposing deep divisions within that community.

DEBRA BAER reporting:

Costa Mesa borders upscale Newport Beach and working class Santa Ana. Its South Coast Plaza attracts the regions wealthiest shoppers. And its diverse West Side attracts both impoverished immigrants looking for a better life and middle class Latinos looking for safer neighborhoods.

Mr. JIM FISHLER (City Planning Commissioner, Costa Mesa): I've just seen a whole portion of our town almost become colonized rather than assimilation by immigrants.

BAER: Long time resident Jim Fishler(ph) is a realtor and city planning commissioner. He says the quality of life in parts of Costa Mesa is declining along with property values. And he blames illegal immigration.

Mr. FISHLER: Because of a lack of interior enforcement, businesses willing to hire and look the other way and the coddling of illegal immigrants, the untold story has been that there's a lot of resentment towards them.

BAER: Fishler cheers Mayor Allan Mansoor's plan to allow police investigators and jail personnel to check the immigration status of suspects in serious felony cases. He says it's long overdue and the beginning he hopes of a wider crackdown on illegal immigration. Mayor Mansoor says the issue is public safety.

Mayor ALLAN MANSOOR (Costa Mesa): To me, this will make the community safer even for someone who's here illegally but is otherwise law abiding.

BAER: Since it approved the plan, the city has drawn protesters and supporters, mostly from out of town. Regularly they pack city council meetings and clash outside City Hall.

Unidentified Speaker: I come here and I put on a hat that says I'm on this side...

Unidentified Female: Some of your people are holding up flags with the swastika.

Unidentified Speaker: No, no, no. No those are people trying to infiltrate.

Mr. JIM GILCHREST (Cofounder, Minutemen): Ever since we launched (unintelligible) fifteen months ago, this is not about racism and tonight we'll prove that up to you.

BAER: Jim Gilchrest is one of those out-of-towners. The Orange County residents is the cofounder of The Minutemen, a group which organizes citizen border patrols and protests at day laborer sites across the country. Over the last couple of months he's brought in Minutemen members from across the U.S. to rally around the mayor's plan.

Mr. GILCHREST: We want to come down here and actually show him that there is significant report around the county. Not only around the county, around the country. What's happening here is going to ripple through the United States.

BAER: Gilchrest hails Mayor Mansoor as a hero to the cause. And he's made him an honorary Minuteman. Immigrant rights groups, however, are not as impressed by Mayor Mansoor's plan. They say the idea of deputizing police as immigration agents isn't new and only gained steam after 9/11.

Mr. NATIVO(ph) LOPEZ (Immigrant Rights Activist, Santa Ana): We will not be the scapegoats in this 21st century.

BAER: Nativo Lopez is an immigrant rights activist in nearby Santa Ana and the head of the Mexican American Political Association.

Mr. LOPEZ: There is nothing new in what we observe in this debate. However, the fallacy of these arguments about crime and security is that they have been tried on us before, but previously the anti-immigrant crowd did not have the Twin Towers as their big fig leaf.

BAER: Lopez heads a coalition of groups organizing a boycott of Costa Mesa businesses that support using police as immigration enforcers.

Professor HUMBERTO CASPA (Coalition Organizer): I think everybody wants violent criminals out of the street. I agree with that.

BAER: Costa Mesa resident Umberto Caspa is a state college professor and coalition organizer.

Professor CASPA: But it's not about criminals. I think this is really a racial issue.

BAER: The mayor's plan has proved so divisive, says Caspa, because it follows on the heels of several other initiatives opposed by the Hispanic community. One is a controversial appointment to the city's redevelopment committee. The appointee is a man who's writings regularly appear on the websites of organizations identified as hate groups by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Professor CASPA: Based on what they're proposing, based on what they have done in the past, I think they're creating division, a hostile environment in the community. Because we have never seen something like this.

BAER: Mayor Mansoor says his plan has nothing to do with race. He himself is the son of legal immigrants. His mother is from Sweden, his father is from Egypt. The focus, he says, is on public safety. But in a city where divisions are growing deeper as his plan to use police as immigration agents moves forward, that message is proving to be a hard sell. For NPR News, I'm Debra Baer in Costa Mesa.

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