Lupe Moreno knows the immigrant struggle. She has lived all her life in Santa Ana, a gateway community for Mexican immigrants. Her father helped smuggle them into the country; her former husband sneaked in illegally.
Now Moreno is part of the growing movement to stem the flow of illegal immigration.
“I want people to know that there are Latinos who are law-abiding,” she said. “We need to protect our borders.”
Although polls suggest that the majority of Latinos are sympathetic to illegal immigrants once they have settled in the United States, opinions vary by generation, home country, economic class and personal values. Some Latinos are strongly opposed to crossing the border illegally.
A few, such as Moreno, stand out because they have publicly embraced political activism, banding together with mostly white organizations to register their opposition.
Their participation appears welcome. Indeed, at a May convention in Las Vegas, organized by the staff of a conservative radio talk show and attended by well-known figures who oppose illegal immigration, Moreno and a handful of other Latinos stood together on the stage at Cashman Field, where they were applauded for their position by more than 200 people in the mostly white audience.
“It’s important that we have these folks here, because I think it shows that we are attracting a wide variety of people,” said Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the citizen border patrol known as the Minuteman Project. “This is not just about white against Mexican. It’s not a racist issue. It’s about putting an end to illegal immigration.”
Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies University at UC San Diego, said that Latinos who oppose undocumented immigrants “are useful to the anti-immigrant camp. They give it credibility and help blunt accusations of racism.”
Latinos who take a stand against illegal entry say they have good reasons for their activism, but they pay a price for speaking out.
“This is not about racism, but about doing the right thing,” Moreno said. "[People] think we are all brown so we are loyal to people who break the law.”
Moreno said her dedication to the cause contributed to the breakup of her 26-year marriage, as her then-husband could no longer tolerate her increasing criticism of undocumented workers. He declined to comment for this story.
Her children, she said, worry that she is in harm’s way, because she is perceived by some Latinos as a turncoat.
Anti-illegal-immigration activist Andy Ramirez of Covina said he has faced similar backlash. “They say we are traitors, or coconuts,” Ramirez said.
Earlier this year Ramirez, 37, formed Friends of the Border Patrol, similar to the Minuteman Project, which led citizen patrols in April along the Arizona-Mexico border to monitor and report illegal crossings. Ramirez hopes to conduct patrols on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, and Minuteman founder Gilchrist said he would be there in support.
Ramirez, a onetime professional hockey player disabled by multiple sclerosis, said he had waited hours for medical care in hospitals that treat undocumented immigrants.
He believes that people who come to this country illegally consume resources that could improve the lives of legal U.S. residents, including money for health and education.
Other Latinos resent the competition that undocumented immigrants bring to the workplace, said Louis DiSipio, a UC Irvine political science professor.
Although activists like Ramirez and Moreno are among a small minority, polls and voting patterns suggest that opinion among Latinos on immigration is by no means monolithic.
A Gallup poll in June, for instance, found that 32% of Latinos believe immigration levels should be decreased, and three in 10 believe that the government should not make it easier for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.
That is in comparison to half of non-Latino whites who favored a decrease and eight in 10 whites who thought the government should not make attaining citizenship easier.
Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at UC Berkeley, said Latinos in the United States have long held mixed feelings about whether to keep ties with Mexicans and therefore, undocumented immigrants.
Latinos feel pulled between two identities, he said. When there is a strong desire to be American, some Latinos cast aside everything Mexican.
From that perspective, “what jeopardizes Hispanics is the continuing influx of immigrants,” said Lopez. “They are on the street corners. They tend to be dark, poor and uneducated. That brings down the status of the group.”
Others say it’s normal for Latinos’ opinions to diverge on this and other issues.
“There is a political pluralism in the community,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. “As you get second, third and four generations, it’s not unusual that there will be a varying opinions.”
Moreno became active in the anti-illegal-immigrant movement in part because she felt guilty about her family’s past, she said.
Her family home had served as a safe house for undocumented immigrants. Years later, in 1990, a nephew in Northern California was murdered by a Mexican national.
In 1993, she attended an informational meeting with about 100 people organized by Barbara Coe, an author of Proposition 187, and became an ally.
Moreno worked behind the scenes, collecting the names of supporters and lobbying national lawmakers for stricter border controls. At the Las Vegas meeting in May, she drew comfort from the 12 other Latinos who stood with her onstage, standing on the same principles.
“Things are heating up,” said Moreno of the current tension over illegal immigration. “For the first time, Latinos are coming out of the woodwork to support us.”
Now she cheers at rallies from Arizona to Alhambra, opposing undocumented workers and the Mexican identification card, known as the matricula consular, which allows many to open bank accounts and acquire other trappings of legitimacy in this country. She works on her new website https://www.latinoamericans.org which includes articles about recent protests and encourages donations and support.
Just in the last month, Moreno and other Latinos have participated in patrols at the border with Border Watch, a citizen group, and a rally against a day laborer site in Laguna Beach. On Tuesday, she said she would go to Sacramento to lobby against allowing driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants
“If you are a patriotic Latino American,” her website reads, “and you are tired of hearing Latino left-wing activist groups mislead the public by asserting that they represent you with the usual remarks about our country being racist, and that anyone who is against illegal immigration is against immigration, [then] join us in raising our voices for family, truth, God and America.”
New allies include Francisco Jorge, 54, an electrical technician who emigrated from Cuba as a boy and also attended the May conference.
Jorge, who lived in East Los Angeles before moving to Mojave, Calif., as an adult, said he resents undocumented immigrants who give birth in the United States so their children are citizens. He is also irked at those who he says allow themselves to be exploited by large companies that pay them low wages -- a practice that he believes lowers the wages of others.
During the Minuteman operation in Arizona, Jorge became its spokesman to the Spanish-language media -- and frequently he defended himself to reporters.
Latino activists have popped up elsewhere around the country, organizing their own Minuteman brigades and complaining about the effect of undocumented immigrants on local communities.
Rosana Pulido of Chicago, the 49-year-old grandchild of Mexican immigrants, spent four days with the Minuteman patrol in Arizona and is now organizing Latino activists to fight illegal immigration.
“I think there are lot of people who are surprised that I’m doing this,” Pulido said. “But I feel I’m getting a lot of support, not totally from Hispanics, but from people who realize that no matter where you come from, you need to be here legally.”
Mexican American Robert Vasquez, 55, a Republican county commissioner in Canyon County, Idaho, wants his county declared a disaster area because he says undocumented workers are straining the county budget, primarily through costs to the county health system. He wants the county to sue employers who hire illegal immigrants.
“There are people who have said I’m racist or a traitor,” Vasquez said. “This is not a racial issue. It is an economic one.”
In Orange County, parent Vivian Martinez advocated the end of bilingual education in Santa Ana, even though more than half of the residents are foreign-born. Martinez said she was concerned that Santa Ana students were learning more Spanish than English in the public schools.
Moreno considers her opposition to illegal immigration an act of patriotism.
“There are Latinos who respect the law and love this country,” she said.
“We are not like them,” she said of undocumented Latinos.