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Taking sides on border issue

A forlorn army of neo-vigilantes came straggling back from the Mexican border last weekend, disappointed with their efforts, while their opponents returned elated by the results of their own presence there and both vowed to meet again. A man named Rico read about it and shook his head.

“Why,” he wondered aloud, “can’t they work together and not against each other?”

The question floated off like a cloud of rain, dark and unfulfilled.

That civilian army of minutemen calls itself Friends of the Border Patrol. They marched down, symbolically anyhow, to San Diego, expecting hundreds to join them in an organization that began forming months ago. Only about 40 showed up.

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What they had intended, said their leader, Andy Ramirez, was to patrol the imaginary line between California and Mexico to observe and report illegal aliens crossing into the U.S. Some would be packing guns but only, one presumes, for show.

Their plan was foiled by the small numbers who showed up and by the presence of a counter-group that called itself the Border Angels. Its adherents gathered to protest the civilian border-watchers, a confrontation that ended up in a scuffle and an arrest. Later, hundreds of anti-vigilantes marched through Calexico, claiming victory.

Ramirez called off his army, he says, because he didn’t want to subject its members to violence. He promises they’ll try again. The Angels promise they’ll be there again.

And then there’s Rico. He’s distressed by the potential for real trouble that looms in their confrontation. Guns aren’t usually carried as symbols of reconciliation. He wishes the opponents could find a common ground of discussion and end the animosity flying back and forth like bullets of hatred and defiance.

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Did I mention that Rico is one of those whom the vigilantes would like to keep out of the good old U.S.A.? Yep, he’s an undocumented existence, an “illegal,” in the same category as a burglar, a rapist or an armed robber, a guy who’s broken the law.

He jumped the fence, as he likes to say, when he was only 16, making his way from Guerrero in Mexico’s southwest corner to the L.A. area. He didn’t speak a word of English back then, but 16 years later, he speaks it better than most Americans and teaches it too. His story is one of a kid following a dream.

I call him Rico to protect his identity. He lives like a kitten in the jungle, fearful that any moment a larger creature is going to leap from the underbrush and drag him away from the life he loves.

He was brought to my attention a few years after he arrived here. He came to this country because he loved learning and this was where to do it.

Rico taught himself English, enrolled in school, earned straight A’s and won the praise of teachers and counselors. Troubled by his illegal presence, he returned to Mexico and applied for a visa to enter the U.S. legally. He was refused on the grounds that he’d violated the law in the first place. So he jumped the fence again.

I hadn’t heard from him until last weekend as the border watchers and the watcher-watchers, so to speak, were heading for a confrontation down south. “I’m still camouflaging myself,” he said, laughing.

Camouflaged, he earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration, did volunteer work to help other Latino kids learn English, donated his time to a program that offered free tax assistance to low-income residents, joined in founding a charter school to foster the notion of pride in all ethnic/racial groups and is thinking about going for a PhD in architecture and urban planning to help the poor obtain dignifying and affordable housing.

At 33, he’s doing more for this country than most natives ever do, and he’s one hell of a lot smarter than probably 99% of the people who want to keep him out.

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Rico knows he owes the United States something. He loves the freedom to learn that it has offered and the emancipating quality that learning provides. He wants to pay the U.S. back and be a benefit to the entire community. He’s talked to attorneys about legalizing his status here. “They tell me there’s no way. It’s difficult to undo what has already been done. So here I am.”

He is especially concerned at the moment that the gun-toting neo-vigilantes mean violence at the border. “Any reasonable person will tell you that they’re looking for trouble. Legislation, not guns, is the answer. The federal government should step in before it’s too late.”

Oddly, federal involvement is what groups like the Minutemen in Arizona and Friends of the Border in California are seeking, but their quest contains little room for discussion, only a demand to seal the border. One wishes they would heed the words of a bright and accomplished “illegal” who is making an effort to understand both sides.

Unable or unwilling to create a movement that would seek compromise instead of confrontation, the civilian vigilantes run the risk of stirring dormant hatreds against any of those from south of the border, and like an albatross at sea, it will return to haunt us all.

It’s a shame that they all can’t be as wise and gentle as Rico.

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Al Martinez’s column appears Mondays and Fridays. He can be reached at al.martinez@latimes.com.


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