Costa Mesa talks tough on illegal immigration, but results are unclear

Like many immigrants who moved to Costa Mesa, Maria Escobar was looking for a calm, quiet place to live. Eighteen years later she still loves this middle-class city near the sea, enjoys visiting its parks and going to the beach.

But as a legal immigrant who lives with family members who are not, she has also come to feel unwelcome.

Costa Mesa has distinguished itself from much of Southern California as a town aggressively opposed to illegal immigrants. City leaders closed a long-running day labor center, proposed that police officers check the legal status of suspected lawbreakers and have even targeted pick-up soccer games in parks.

Now, as city after city in California has condemned Arizona’s recently passed illegal-immigration law, Costa Mesa has again stood firmly on the other side of the debate by declaring itself a “Rule of Law City.”

If the declaration was meant to send the message that the Orange County city was serious about fighting illegal immigration, it worked on the city’s Latino-dominated Westside.

“The situation is critical,” Escobar, 41, said. “We see it on the news, and people call each other to talk about what’s happening. Everyone is scared that they’re going to send la migra.”

But for all the tough talk about illegal immigrants, it remains an open question how much political leaders here have accomplished beyond attracting headlines and rattling nerves.

The immigration agent once stationed at the city jail is gone. An anti-solicitation ordinance meant to drive away day laborers is on indefinite hold because of a lawsuit, and the number of jailed illegal immigrants handed over to federal authorities has dropped significantly.

As in many California suburbs, Costa Mesa’s population was almost uniformly white during its boom years after World War II. But change came decades ago, as Latino immigrants looking for affordable homes moved to the Westside.

Mayor Allan Mansoor, the son of Swedish and Egyptian immigrants, said illegal immigration has been a “growing problem” in his city for decades, one that has burdened public education, healthcare and law enforcement.

Costa Mesa today has a mixed population: about a third of residents are Latino, but the majority remains white. The Latino population appears to be growing; 63% of public school students are Latino, and 22% are white.

Starting in 2005, Mansoor and the City Council thrust themselves into the national spotlight with a series of proposals meant to attack illegal immigration. They voted to shut down a day laborer center that had been open for nearly two decades, then made it a crime to solicit employment on public streets.

A year later, Mansoor proposed training local police to check the legal status of inmates held on felony charges. He gained renown among anti-illegal immigrant groups, but the proposal was ultimately scuttled in favor of stationing a full-time U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent in the city jail.

In May, the city weighed in again with a resolution.

“Costa Mesa is not a sanctuary city and is in fact a Rule of Law City in regards to upholding our immigration laws,” it read.

Latino civil rights groups reacted strongly. The Santa Ana Council of the League of United Latin American Citizens called on Latino residents to “evacuate” the city, saying they would be “singled out for abuse and discrimination.”

To the north in affluent Yorba Linda, city leaders voted to endorse the Arizona law. The decision was greeted with a shrug, unlike the outcry in Costa Mesa, even though its “Rule of Law” resolution neither affirmed Arizona’s law nor changed city policy.

In nationally televised interviews, Mansoor touted the city’s history of cooperation with immigration authorities. But ICE has not had a full-time agent in the city jail since March, when it adopted Secure Communities, a national program that uses fingerprints to check immigration status.

In 2007, the first full year in which an ICE agent was stationed at the jail, nearly 2,000 people were interviewed and nearly 500 were placed on immigration holds. This year, through April, 60 people were interviewed and 60 detained, according to Costa Mesa police.

Recently, anti-illegal-immigration activists have criticized Mansoor for not leading the city to adopt the federal E-Verify program, which seeks to weed out employees who are unauthorized to work.

The city’s efforts to bolster immigration enforcement have been sidetracked by lawsuits, budget troubles and other business, the mayor said.

Jim Gilchrist, president of the anti-illegal-immigration Minuteman Project, once anointed Mansoor an honorary Minuteman. But he is now concerned that city leaders are not matching their rhetoric with policy.

“We want to see a follow-through,” Gilchrist said. “We don’t want just a lip service that’s giving us the illusion of law enforcement; we want actual results.”

In the end, the daily rhythm in this city continues mostly unchanged. And many residents see a disconnect between City Hall’s focus on illegal immigration and their everyday concerns.

On a recent weekday, businesses catering to Latino customers on West 19th Street were bustling. A mixed crowd streamed in and out of El Metate Market. Others lined up for tacos at El Toro Bravo Tortilleria.

Across the city, the playground at Paularino Park — a flat, green expanse that became a focal point of the immigration debate a few years ago when the city banned team sports there — was filled with Spanish- and English-speaking children.

Dennis Loya, 48, who took his children to play at the park, believes the federal government should shut down the U.S.-Mexico border. But in Costa Mesa, “illegal immigrants are not really a problem,” he said.

He suspects another motive.

“It’s sheer politicking,” he said.