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Billboard Draws Fire From Latino Leaders

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A controversial billboard that calls California the “Illegal Immigrant State” may bring several Latino organizations together to battle the Orange County-based group that installed the sign near Blythe.

Mario Obledo, former state Health, Education and Welfare secretary and president of the California Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, said this week that he plans to “deface or burn” the billboard and that he has asked Latino leaders in California to support him later this month.

“I have invited my friends, and I invite all Californians of goodwill to join me,” said Obledo, who at one time was the highest-ranking Latino in the Edmund G. “Jerry” Brown Jr. administration and helped found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

The 66-year-old civil rights leader also was singled out by President Clinton this year to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian award.

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But Barbara Coe, whose California Coalition for Immigration Reform co-sponsored Proposition 187, the measure that bars illegal immigrants from attending public schools and receiving social services and health care and paid for the billboard on the 10 Freeway near the Arizona border, said that if Obledo defaces the sign, she will call local authorities.

The billboard reads: “Welcome to California. The Illegal Immigration State. Don’t Let This Happen To Your State,” and includes a toll-free number. Coe said the majority of calls are against the billboard.

Obledo, who now practices law in Sacramento and has been relatively quiet on Latino issues, said he found the billboard offensive. He is the first among Latino leaders to say that action must be taken to bring the billboard down.

“It is out of order, it’s racist, it’s divisive and creates a climate of fear among Californians,” said Obledo.

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Gil Flores, state director for the League of United Latin American Citizens, or LULAC, said the billboard has upset many of LULAC’s members, who number 1,200 in California.

“If Mario calls for a demonstration, we’ll go with him,” Flores said. “He’s a hell of a civil rights fighter, and I think we need to bring the issue to a head.”

In Tucson, Ariz., Richard Fimbres, LULAC’s Arizona director, took exception to the billboard’s message and said he intends to bring up the issue at LULAC’s national convention later this month in Dallas.

Despite Obledo’s credentials, Riverside County sheriff’s deputies said they would take whatever action is needed if Obledo tries to destroy the billboard.

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“If somebody purposely damages private property, we’ll take a report, and if the criteria is there to make an arrest on malicious mischief, we will,” said Sgt. Mark Lohman, a spokesman for the Riverside Sheriff’s Department.

While critics call the board’s message racist, Coe said it’s meant as a warning to other states about “the devastation that has occurred in California because of illegal immigration and bilingual education.” She said the sign is not racist because it doesn’t say Hispanic, Latino or Mexican.

Since the sign was put up May 7, it has attracted critics and supporters, said Coe, the coalition’s president. For every 20 telephone calls received on a toll-free number, Coe said, “four to five” are callers who support the billboard’s message.

“While the rest are people who are attempting to jam us with hate calls, we’re looking at about 400 people who have gotten through and voiced their support,” Coe said.

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Obledo, whose parents were Mexican immigrants, said he finds the billboard offensive enough to risk arrest. He said he had heard about the sign in the media and through associates.

“Law enforcement? That’s all right,” he said. “I think I’m in the right. [Coe] may argue freedom of speech. But freedom of speech has its limitations. . . . The message crosses the boundaries of free speech because it could incite violence, poses a danger to public safety and creates a climate of fear and mistrust among citizens of California.”

“I’m going to deface the billboard or burn it,” said Obledo, who plans to take his action June 27.

The sign recently was ordered taken down by the California Department of Transportation because it uses white letters on a green background, the same combination used by Caltrans. Those colors make the billboard look as if it’s an official state highway sign and therefore violates the California Outdoor Advertising Act of 1967, said Jim Drago, a Caltrans spokesman in Sacramento.

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Martin Media, an Arizona advertising company, will repaint the sign with white letters on a black background, Drago said.

Coe said her sign was singled out by Caltrans, and she is seeking reimbursement for the $375 painting bill.

“There are many other signs out there on the highways that use a green background. I know because I’ve taken pictures of them,’ Coe said. “I told Caltrans officials this was a case of unfair harassment and discrimination against [the coalition]. I just want to be treated fair and equitably.”


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