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Protest Reactions Reflect the Area’s Deep Divisions

Times Staff Writer

Depending on whom you talked to, the recent pro-immigrant protests were an awe-inspiring manifestation of political unity, a reminder of America’s perilously porous borders or just another source for a Southern California traffic jam.

The demonstrations, which began Friday, have generated national media attention. But Californians have been debating illegal immigration so long -- and so intensely -- that the spectacle seemed to change few opinions. In many cases, the protests seemed only to harden already firm beliefs.

“I don’t like it,” Thomas Walsh, an 80-year-old Tustin resident who served with the Marines in Japan, Korea and Vietnam, said. Balanced on his cane at a Santa Ana strip mall Tuesday, he added: “I think these illegals walk in and they want to be taken care of no matter what, and I rather resent it.”

At Farmers Market at Fairfax Avenue and 3rd Street in Los Angeles, some diners supported the marchers and wanted to remind border-crackdown advocates who was cleaning their homes and caring for their children.

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“These are your neighbors and co-workers,” said Ellen Stutzman, a 23-year-old researcher for the Writers Guild. “I hate it when people say they are illegal. They’re just undocumented. We’ve made them to be the enemy, and they’re not.”

Nearby sat Kenji Yoshioka, a 45-year-old Japanese computer engineer who spent 10 years and $3,000 in legal fees to get a green card to live and work in the United States. He worries that illegal immigrants are harming the efforts of people waiting to enter the country legally.

“You have a law over here that people are supposed to follow,” he said. “It’s unfair for me that people are being smuggled in.... There are talented people waiting for a proper visa to be approved.”

On heavily Latino 4th Street in Santa Ana, Art Luna said he believed that the protests were a reaction to years of criticism of immigrants.

“People are mad at the bashing,” said Luna, 60, who is retired and lives in Buena Park. The majority of immigrants “are looking for jobs. These are Christian people. They’re not terrorists.”

He added, “I think the world is watching how the United States reacts to this.”

Luna said he learned about the protests late because he gave up television for Lent, but was awed when he found out how many people were involved. It reminded him of the 1960s-era marches for peace and civil rights.

“I was surprised that many people care about the issue,” Luna said.

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In Leimert Park, an African American arts district in Los Angeles, reaction was mixed. Some thought that the protesters went too far; others, like Garland Jackson, felt a kinship with their civil disobedience.

“I salute them for standing up for their rights,” said Jackson, a 46-year-old jazz saxophonist who was keeping out of the rain at 5th Street Dick’s Coffee Company. “I hope they protest peacefully.”

In Orange County’s Little Saigon, where huge protests occurred in 1999 after a video store owner displayed a Vietnamese flag and a poster of communist leader Ho Chi Minh, some residents said they supported the marchers’ 1st Amendment right to protest.

“I’m glad that they’re voicing what they believe in,” said Tam Nguyen, 38, a mortgage broker from Westminster who fled to the United States from Vietnam in 1975. “That’s the only way they’ll be heard.”

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Thien-Huong Pham-Do, a 40-year-old Irvine woman, said she had sympathy for immigrants. She explained that after fleeing Vietnam, she spent four days at sea in a rickety boat and then three months in a refugee camp in Indonesia.

Still, she said, she does not support the protesters and believes that America’s borders should be tightened.

“We don’t know who they are, we don’t know where they are, we don’t have any records of them. If they do something wrong, how do they chase someone down?” Pham-Do said of illegal immigrants.

In Riverside, as about 50 high school protesters were preparing to cross the plaza outside the Hall of Justice, some onlookers voiced skepticism about the students’ motives.

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“I can understand the bigger rally over the weekend, but a lot of these kids are just marching now so they can ditch school,” said Richard Lansford, 45, a Riverside construction worker.

“Shoot, you already protested over the weekend, you protested Monday and again today,” he said. “People know where you stand. Now let everyone else get back to their regular routine.”

Matthew Giroud, a 26-year-old Riverside computer analyst, said he knew only that the protest had something to do with immigration. But he wondered why students weren’t forced back into class.

“I’m not really sure why the schools and police are not being more aggressive in getting them back there,” Giroud said. “It’s almost like they are running things.... and they’ll go back when they feel like it. But I probably would have done the same thing if I was still in high school.”

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Dennis Fields, 56, a Murrieta travel agent, was irritated that Tuesday’s protest, which involved students in the streets blocking lanes, made him late for work.

“Haven’t they heard of writing your local congressman?” he said. “Enough is enough.”

In the San Fernando Valley, Burbank resident Diana Means, executive director of a women’s film festival, said she backed the protesters and believed that the relative lack of violence reflected their commitment to the cause. Still, she said, she thinks it is “out of place” for protesters to wave the Mexican flag.

“They are here on American soil,” said Means, 34.

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At a Santa Ana shopping plaza off Main Street, Keith Guenther, a 61-year-old sign-maker from Orange, said he found it “kind of an insult” that some protesters waved the Mexican flag, given that the American system was permitting them to protest in the first place.

“It seems like there’s a contradiction there,” Guenther said. He said he believed that people living here legally had a right to protest, but that illegal immigrants did not.

Among those who had been massing in the streets since Saturday, he said, it was impossible to tell who belonged in which group. “You can’t really look into the crowd and say, ‘That one is, and that one isn’t.’ ”

Times staff writers Jennifer Oldham, Mai Tran and Jonathan Abrams contributed to this report.

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