Peter Tobias sat in the back row of a federal courtroom in downtown San Diego Thursday, trying to decide if courthouse decorum allowed him to cheer, clap his hands and yell at the top of his lungs.
After all, a judge had just rendered a passionate decision that Tobias and an entourage of migrant advocates had been anxiously awaiting--granting a temporary restraining order against a curbside hiring ban in Encinitas many felt was an infringement of the right to free speech.
Tobias, however, isn’t a migrant laborer. He isn’t a lawyer or a professional worker’s advocate or any courtroom regular.
He’s a 45-year-old Scripps Clinic biochemist and Encinitas resident who just got tired of what he called the city’s heavy-handed policy in dealing with its growing population of migrant laborers from Mexico and Central America.
So, when the city took what he considered yet another harsh stand in passing its curbside hiring ordinance, Tobias took a stand of his own.
He became a plaintiff on a recent lawsuit filed by the ACLU and a migrant advocacy group against the hiring ban, joining five others that include migrant laborers, advocates and a socially conscious attorney.
The athletic, gray-haired Tobias is perhaps the most unlikely player in the battle for migrant’s rights in the North County beachside town, a concerned citizen who described his involvement in the issue as a simmering pot that finally boiled over.
“I’m just surprised there weren’t 50 other people out there doing the same thing I was,” he said. “I’ve always had this sense of sympathy and outrage at the way these workers were being manhandled by the city. And that curbside hiring ban was the trigger.”
Tobias, a 10-year resident of Encinitas, is no stranger to community affairs. He worked on both of the city’s incorporation efforts and is a member of one of its community action boards.
But there was no other issue, he says, that got beneath his skin as much as the City Council’s often-steadfast stance on the migrant issue.
In the past, he had appeared before the council to voice his displeasure over their migrant policies, claiming that it just wasn’t right to enact laws aimed at sweeping hundreds of needy, poverty-stricken people into the next city or county.
What was needed, he told council members, were programs to help the families that were living there. After all, he said, isn’t that what living in America was all about?
At one meeting, Tobias even read the Pledge of Allegiance before council members to make his point that the credo applied to everybody.
The response, he recalled, “was amused tolerance.”
But last month, he took a different approach at a council meeting addressing a proposed curbside hiring ban--a plan to fine would-be employers who hired workers from city street corners, depriving laborers of one of their few means of employment.
“At an earlier meeting to discuss the issue, there had been only four speakers, and three of them had spoken out in favor of the law. I thought, ‘This is absurd.’
“So I stood up and told the council that this law would be a violation of my rights to free speech and peaceful assembly. But Councilwoman Marjorie Gaines said that a vast number of citizens in Encinitas wanted the hiring hall.
“She was just sorry I was wrong. I wish I had her on tape now.”
That meeting, Tobias recalls, broke the back of his patience. He called the California Rural Legal Assistance, a migrant advocacy group, saying he was ready to help make this issue a test case.
He was even ready, he told lawyer Claudia Smith, to go to jail.
“I wanted to push this one as far as it would go, but I didn’t know how to go about it,” he recalled. “To me, this is civil rights stuff like the 1960s. I thought we were going to have to go out and do something to get carted off to jail--like picking up a worker right in front of a sheriff’s deputy.”
Smith, however, suggested that Tobias could become part of a lawsuit then being prepared by her agency and the ACLU.
The legal assistance lawyer says she wasn’t surprised to hear from “sideline” people such as Tobias on the hiring issue. “This was another Marjorie Gaines special. And like a lot of other things, it went too far.
“For a lot of people, the law just pushed them over the threshold of outrage. Peter Tobias was one of them. His outrage was very real.”
On Thursday afternoon, Tobias had taken his quest for the right to free speech beyond any city council chambers--straight to a U.S. District courtroom.
He watched as Judge John S. Rhoades not only granted a temporary restraining order against the hiring ban, but sounded a ringing defense of the Bill of Rights as it applies to all people--even migrant workers.
At one point, Rhoades even quoted from the Pledge of Allegiance as Tobias sat beaming in the courtroom, savoring a feeling a vindication, recalling the night he had made the same point before City Council members.
“To think that, 2 1/2 years later, a federal judge would be saying largely the same thing was great,” he said. “It felt great to be able to legitimately say, ‘I told you so.’
“I was just trying to decide if it was appropriate to applaud. There was just a lot of pent-up anger over the city’s harsh dealing with people who don’t deserve that kind of treatment. I mean these migrant workers have more problems than any of us have.”
So Peter Tobias didn’t have to go to jail to make his point. But, as the City Council huddles in the next few days to decide its next move, he advises that they use caution for once.
“Sure there are a lot of problems caused by huge numbers of poverty-stricken people in a community,” he said. “But it doesn’t matter if they’re from Central America or Peoria, you can’t just enact laws to say they can’t look for work on city streets.
“They have every right to be there. After all, it’s a public place.”