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Undocumented? Unwelcome

Times Staff Writer

Escondido city officials refuse to give up.

Two years ago, the city passed an ordinance to punish landlords for renting to illegal immigrants. But it rescinded the rental restriction after a legal challenge was filed and bills began to mount.

Now Escondido is trying a new approach to what it calls the “public nuisances” of illegal immigration, citing residents for code violations such as garage conversions, graffiti and junk cars.

The city is also debating a new ordinance that would restrict overnight street parking without a permit. In addition, it is drafting a policy that would prohibit drivers from picking up day laborers along some streets.

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“We learned from the rental ordinance,” Councilman Sam Abed said. “We changed our focus to quality of life issues.”

Like many city leaders frustrated with the federal government, Escondido officials said they were taking immigration enforcement into their own hands. They said they were fighting the perception that Escondido, a city in affluent northern San Diego County with a burgeoning Latino population, has become a destination for illegal immigrants.

Councilman Ed Gallo said he regularly receives complaints from Escondido residents about illegal immigrants crowding schools, hospitals and neighborhoods.

“If you are not here legally, you don’t belong here,” Gallo said. “We’re talking about image and appearance. . . . We are trying to change the image of Escondido.”

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The city’s police department is also playing a role.

Police Chief Jim Maher said his department conducted two “criminal alien” sweeps this year. Officers identified illegal immigrants with criminal records who had been deported but then returned. In two separate sweeps, Escondido police arrested 31 illegal immigrants and turned them over to federal authorities for possible deportation.

“Our police department cannot secure the border,” Maher told a small crowd at a town hall meeting. “But we can do everything possible to remove the criminal aliens from this community.”

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack said the police department sweeps were a “unique enforcement approach” because the officers acted largely on their own.

“Their assistance is greatly appreciated,” she said, commending the department for verifying in advance that the targets were deportable.

The police department’s most controversial move, however, was establishing checkpoints to find unlicensed drivers. Last year, the department set up 18 license checkpoints, resulting in 293 impounded cars, 14 arrests and 296 citations. Maher said those checkpoints helped officers find at least 290 unlicensed drivers and helped reduce the city’s number of hit-and-run crashes.

“Some folks say they are controversial because they target a specific segment of the population,” he said. “That is absolutely not true. Our checkpoints are for one reason and one reason only: traffic safety.”

Escondido officers ask about immigration status only if the drivers do not have licenses. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to obtain driver’s licenses in California. In the last six months of 2007, officers identified six illegal immigrants and referred them to federal authorities.

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The multi-pronged campaign was aided by a resolution passed by the City Council last year to “address the public nuisances of illegal immigration.”

The following sentence appeared in the original version, but was removed before the resolution passed: “Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life.”

Escondido is one of dozens of cities around the country that have employed local ordinances in an attempt to “purge their populations of illegal immigrants,” said Wayne Cornelius, who directs the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

Between May 2006 and October 2007, 131 cities introduced anti-illegal immigration ordinances, including several that sought to prohibit renting to illegal immigrants. Fewer than half were passed. Many were struck down by the courts.

Many Escondido residents have praised the council and the police for taking a stand on illegal immigration.

Tisha Bennett is among the more vocal supporters. Two years ago, she said, the daughter of a friend was hit and killed by an unlicensed drunk driver who had been deported and sneaked back into the country.

“It’s about the law,” she said. “All we want is people to obey the law.”

Bennett formed a group called Citizens of Escondido for Road Safety and collected signatures in support of the driver’s license checkpoints. She also backs the proposed parking ordinance.

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“The whole issue is quality of life,” she said. “It’s not legal versus illegal. It’s the overburdening of our system.”

Kathleen Crusing, president of the Escondido Republican Women Federated, said the city cannot adequately plan for the number of illegal immigrants arriving every year. “If you have a dinner party and you plan for 12, but 24 show up, you’ve got a problem,” she said.

The city’s policies have also attracted criticism from some residents who said the city is blurring distinctions between illegal immigrants and Latinos here legally.

“It’s not about immigration,” said resident Bill Flores, spokesman for a community organization called El Grupo. “It is about brown people. . . . They are looking for a way to reduce the number of brown people.”

Flores, a retired assistant sheriff in San Diego County, said he believed city leaders were reacting to a dramatic demographic shift.

More than 62,000 Latinos lived in Escondido in 2006, making up 44% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That marks a significant jump since 1990, when roughly 25,000 Latinos lived in the city and were 23% of the population. The non-Latino white population, meanwhile, dropped between 1990 and 2000 by nearly 11%.

The elementary school district’s demographics have also shifted. Latinos made up 48% of the student body in the 1997-98 school year and 65% in 2007-08, according to the California Department of Education.

Cornelius, of UC San Diego, said Escondido is a hotbed of anti-immigration activity in part because its population is largely conservative and in part because it has been a destination for immigrants -- both legal and undocumented -- looking for work.

The city is trying to make illegal immigrants’ lives so uncomfortable that they will go away, he said.

“It’s a pipe dream for nativists, because immigrants living in Escondido have invested too much getting there and starting a new life in the U.S. to be scared out of town by a bunch of new code enforcement practices,” he said.

Immigrants say the city’s hostility toward them makes it difficult to live in Escondido. The proposed parking ordinance, for example, is meant to discourage multiple families from sharing a single home, Councilman Gallo said.

Lucina Carachure, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, lives in a neighborhood littered with trash and full of boarded-up apartment buildings. On her husband’s monthly income of $1,800, Carachure said, the family of five cannot afford to live alone.

So they share a two-bedroom apartment with another couple and their baby. Together, they pay $1,000 in rent.

Tomas Moreno, who has lived in Escondido illegally for 20 years, said he listens to Spanish-language radio stations to find out whether and where any license checkpoints have been set up.

He drives to his construction job and said he can’t risk being turned over to immigration authorities or having his car impounded.

“They don’t want cars in the street, they don’t want a lot of people in the houses,” said Moreno. “They don’t want us here. That’s the truth.”

Nevertheless, Moreno said he had no plans to leave Escondido. He and his wife live in a quiet neighborhood with their four children, two U.S.-born and two undocumented.

“We have been here since we came,” he said. “Even though we have problems, it’s our city.”

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anna.gorman@latimes.com


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