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1,000 Flip Switches to ‘Light Border’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

More than 1,000 people gathered along the U.S.-Mexican border Friday and turned on their vehicle headlights at dusk to show their dissatisfaction with the continued flow of illegal immigrants from Latin America.

It was the largest turnout to date for a loose coalition of area residents that seeks to dramatize what they consider a lack of control along the notoriously porous international boundary. Some critics have assailed comments by members of the “Light Up the Border” group as anti-Latino and racist, a charge dismissed by organizers.

“These illegal aliens come over the border and they rob, they steal, they kill,” said one protester, Robben Suhay, a San Diego schoolteacher, who said she felt “frustrated” by the large number of undocumented people in the area. “Some people are going to look at this as a prejudice thing. That’s not what this is about. It’s not the Ku Klux Klan against Hispanics.”

No serious incidents were reported among the crowd that showed up in more than 400 vehicles, police said. There were several heated discussions between the pro-lighting advocates and others who took a more sympathetic view of illegal immigration, but no violence was reported.

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“I just want the place lit up, and with that will come proper attention and proper law enforcement,” said Muriel Watson, a San Diego County resident who is the widow of a longtime Border Patrol officer and a leader of the lighting movement.

Their principal goal was to make elected representatives and other policy-makers pay attention.

Last fall, U.S. immigration authorities began installing spotlights along one heavily traveled swath of border in an effort to disperse illegal crossers and reduce crime in the area.

The lighting activists advocate an agenda--including increased U.S. border enforcement, construction of additional fencing and other barriers--that is mostly at odds with the stance of pro-immigrant groups.

The growing popularity of the lighting movement--which was started in November--underscores the increasing polarity of views along the border, where the flow of undocumented migrants has long been a controversial issue. That polarity was clear among those with dissenting opinions Friday.

“This is pure racism,” said Juan Gonzalez, a 44-year-old Mexican laborer and resident of the border community of San Ysidro who happened to be driving by as the protesters gathered. In response, he played loud Mexican music on his car radio.

The pro-lighting advocates scoff at charges of racism.

“This is not a racist movement by any stretch of the imagination,” said Audrey Bergner, a La Jolla resident who handed out a press release placing undocumented persons into one sympathetic category--"poor people looking for a better way of life"--and three less complimentary groupings--criminals, drug smugglers and terrorists.

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She, like others, blamed undocumented people for a wide array of problems, from crime to the spread of disease to what she views as the downfall of the public education system. Others dispute the connection as spurious.

Bergner also expressed the opinion that the undocumented take jobs from U.S. residents, a point that has been challenged by other researchers.

“I refer you to a study showing that for every 100 jobs taken by Hispanics, 50 Americans are put out of work,” Bergner said.

Reminded that many millions of Hispanics are “Americans,” Bergner responded, “Let’s rephrase that and say ‘illegals.’ ”

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A lone counter-protester, Dan Cannon, 29, a San Diego construction worker who advocates open borders, marched in front of the cars with U.S. flags and a banner bearing words from the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.”

“These people are only crossing to improve their lives, like my great-grandparents,” Cannon said. “Why do we punish them?”

Cannon’s comments sparked angry responses from those who had gathered to turn on their headlights. “Go back to Mexico,” one man told Cannon, who was born in the United States.

“Why don’t you tell these people to get inoculated before they come over?” said Betty Raymond, a Riverside County schoolteacher. She later explained that many of her immigrant students have unusual health ailments, which she traces to a lack of vaccinations. “They’re full of diseases,” she said.

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Friday’s event was the fifth time that the activists have turned their headlights toward Tijuana, aiming their beams at groups of prospective border-crossers, many of them women and children, who nightly attempt to enter the United States without documents.

The Friday lighting had been hyped all week by Roger Hedgecock, the ex-San Diego mayor and convicted felon who is currently a radio talk-show host. Hedgecock had a bit part a decade ago in a film, “Borderline,” about the border, that starred Charles Bronson.

Throughout Friday’s spectacle, groups of prospective crossers watched from the hills to the south, apparently waiting for the lights to be turned off so they could make their way across the border. As the cars began to leave, a Border Patrol helicopter flashed its powerful spotlights on a group of immigrants running across a field on the way to the north.


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