Tactic of Lighting Up Border Raises Tensions


As dusk fell on the U.S.-Mexico border Thursday, hundreds of motorists gathered along a roadway here and shined their headlights toward groups of uninterested migrants waiting patiently for nightfall at the boundary line.

Facing directly into the harsh beams of light, counter-protesters chanting No mas racismo! (No more racism!) held up mirrors and sheets of dark plastic in an attempt to reflect the lights back to the north.

With the chill of night closing in, the face-off disintegrated into alternating volleys of epithets, as shouts of “Nazis!” and “Wetback lovers!” were exchanged.


The dissonant scene was from the latest gathering of the Light Up the Border campaign, a burgeoning movement of mostly Anglo citizens that has galvanized public attention on the continuing stream of undocumented immigrants from the south. The lighting movement, which began with small gatherings last winter, has expanded rapidly and grown into huge, highly publicized protests involving 1,000 or more people, energizing supporters and opponents on both sides of the frontier.

Despite their many disagreements, the participants and counter-protesters agree on one thing: U.S. laws, specifically the much-ballyhooed Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, have failed abysmally in a primary goal--turning back the daily tide of undocumented humanity from Mexico and elsewhere. Visual testament is provided by the hundreds of migrants--men and women, the old and the young--who stage each day along the international line in San Diego, waiting to slip into California and its promise of jobs.

The emotions evident during Thursday’s border protests underline what appears to be an ever-greater polarization about unauthorized immigration.

“I feel hatred is brewing on both sides,” said Elizabeth Sisco, a photographer and professor at Southwestern College in Chula Vista who has been involved in border issues for more than a decade. “When people start hurling negative statements back and forth at each other, they just get madder and madder. And mad people don’t act rationally.”

How to deal with the immigration problem remains a fiercely contested challenge. The so-called Alliance for Border Control, organizer of the lighting protests, hopes the movement will prompt U.S. authorities to bolster enforcement by posting additional border guards, building more barriers, deploying National Guard troops, and implementing similar stratagems. Opponents say such steps will never work without efforts to improve the economies of Third World “sending” nations, especially Mexico, and parallel moves to allay civil strife in Central America and elsewhere.

The pro-enforcement theme of the lighting protesters has struck a responsive and provocative chord in Southern California, drawing mostly non-Latinos who say they are fed up with illegal immigration and what they view as its corollary evils--drug trafficking, the spread of disease, terrorism, traffic congestion and environmental degradation, among others.

“Everything is worsened by these massive numbers of people coming in,” explained Sonya Jason, a San Fernando Valley resident who made the trip. “Look at the traffic. You just can’t drive in L.A. anymore. The crisis in hospital care. The schools. Some black Americans can’t get jobs because they don’t speak Spanish. . . . The increased crime, the drugs coming in, the terrible effects of pollution. What about the water shortage?”

The pro-enforcement activists have been particularly insistent on linking the illegal immigration and drug trafficking problem, implying that many migrants finance their trips by ferrying narcotics--a claim dismissed by critics. In a letter published recently in the San Diego Union, Audrey W. Bergner, a La Jolla resident who is one of the movement’s most vociferous leaders, alluded to “the drug dealers, criminals and other 3,000 aliens who pour into our city illegally every night.”

The protests have been heavily publicized by former San Diego Mayor Roger Hedgecock, who now hosts a popular radio call-in program. On a recent program, Hedgecock recounted that he had seen illegal aliens with phony immigration documents selling drugs to homeless people on the streets of downtown San Diego.

Critics see such comments as scapegoating and racist, a xenophobic throwback to U.S. nativist movements of yesteryear--and a manifestation of Anglo backlash to the “browning” of California, as the state’s Latino population continues to rise. They also perceive an invitation to vigilantism at a time when violence against migrants is on the rise and tensions about their presence are escalating throughout Southern California.

“I think what they’re doing is promoting racism and hate,” said Roberto Martinez, a longtime San Diego-based Latino rights activist who says he receives threatening telephone calls regularly on the days following border lighting protests. “They’re creating a state of hysteria and fear in order to draw attention to their anti-immigrant attacks, which are based on misinformation.”

In the view of its detractors, the border lighting movement is a modern incarnation of classic American nativism--the dislike of outsiders that has been a prevalent theme in U.S. society since Irish “hordes” began arriving on the East Coast during the 1840s. The demonization of immigrants has also affected Italians, Jews, Eastern Europeans, Chinese--and now, many believe, Latin Americans and other immigrants, including Koreans and Haitians.

The border lighting activists reject the harshly negative image projected by critics, contending that they are only seeking to have U.S. authorities regain control of the nation’s borders.

“This racist talk is just not true,” said Muriel Watson, a San Diego County resident who is the leader of the Light Up the Border protests. “The border and its problems have been kept a deep, dark secret, and we’re tired of it,” said Watson, widow of a longtime Border Patrol pilot, and the former spokeswoman for the union representing U.S. Border Patrol officers. “Something has to be done. We’re in a crisis situation.”

Watson, the granddaughter of Italian immigrants, stressed that the movement was not anti-immigrant--just anti-illegal immigrant.

But counter-protesters say the linkages drawn between undocumented immigrants and criminal activity suggest a clear bias. Critics charge that the pro-enforcement contingent regularly cites incorrect data to prove various points, such as the asserted connection between undocumented immigrants and crime, or the alleged link between illegal immigration and loss of jobs by U.S. citizens.

“When you use phrases like war zone, state of siege, Tortilla Curtain-- these are the words that they use--then you’re making it impossible to create a dialogue,” said Aida Mancillas, a language professor at UC San Diego, who was among the counter-protesters Thursday. “It tends to become Us vs. Them.”

Participants in the monthly lighting rallies are particularly disturbed by changes in California, and, in attempting to explain where things went wrong, many point to illegal immigration. Among the many interviewed Thursday evening, there was a clear yearning for what they viewed as the less complicated, less culturally baffling society of a past era.

“I just can’t see California being turned into Mexico,” said Kay McCormick, a retired 67-year-old homeowner in northern San Diego County. Tensions are increasing there between Anglo residents and migrant workers, many of whom live in crude dwellings in area canyons. “It’s a cultural thing. It has to do with speech, it has to do with bilingual education. I think people who come here should speak English.”

She was standing in front of her truck, lights on, along with Gladys Tisue, a retiree from El Cajon. “We’re not against the Mexican people,” Tisue explained. “We need them to work in the fields. But we need some kind of a program to bring them in. Anybody could come in through this border now. There are terrorists.”

As the protests wound down Thursday evening, the people who were its principal targets--undocumented immigrants--observed the lights with passing interest from hillsides to the south. Informed that the lights were meant as a symbolic protest against their presence, the border crossers expressed considerable bemusement.

“They want to stop us by putting lights there?” asked a clearly befuddled Juan Murguia, a 22-year-old native of the Mexican state of Michoacan, who was among those staging on the now-dark hillside. “We’re going to go through whether they are there or not. Besides, who would work in the fields if we weren’t there? Do you think Americans would do the kind of work that we do?”

With that, Murguia and the others continued following movements of the lights that most mattered to them--the lights of U.S. Border Patrol land vehicles and aircraft assigned to the border area.