Border issues still divide public

Vincent Gazzara wants gun towers along the border and guards with orders to shoot.

“The point is some would have to lose their lives,” said the 70-year-old retired administrator, who sings in his church choir. “But when they realized that they can’t cross without being shot, they would stop.”

Talk about boosting border security, albeit with less extreme measures, is common in Escondido, a working-class city in northern San Diego County, 40 miles from Mexico. But the decades-long patchwork of remedies to halt the flow of illegal immigrants has proved so frustrating that residents like Gazzara expressed qualified support for broad reforms such as those championed by President Obama in his immigration policy speech Tuesday.

They include a path to citizenship for those brought to the United States illegally as children and the possibility of legal status for millions of other undocumented immigrants, provided they pass a background check and meet other criteria.


An estimated 2.5 million illegal immigrants live and work in California, embedded in such bulwarks of the state economy as agriculture and the service industry. The state’s voters tilt toward Democrats for president, but in some regions elect conservative Republican congressmen -- such as Darrell Issa (R-Vista), whose district includes Escondido, and Kevin McCarthy (R-Bakersfield). Their support will be key to getting any immigration plan through a fractious House of Representatives.

Immigration reform activists greeted Obama’s speech with broad enthusiasm. The president was tackling nothing less than “a defining civil and human rights issue of our time,” said Wade Henderson, president and chief executive of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

But the mixed reactions of Californians suggest the fraught terrain legislators must navigate to bring an immigration reform bill to Obama’s desk.

“Anyone applying for citizenship should pay a penalty,” said Gazzara, the retired administrator. “If you don’t respect our laws then you should pay the consequences.”

Gazzara was getting a haircut at Del’s Barber Shop in Escondido in the company of other self-described conservative Republicans, while immigrant women pushed baby strollers by the American flag that fluttered outside.

Escondido is one of the few cities in the country where immigration enforcement agents monitor and respond to police traffic stops, resulting in hundreds of deportation proceedings.

One passing woman, an illegal immigrant with three children who gave her name only as Maria, said she didn’t drive in the city because she feared getting pulled over at a traffic checkpoint.

But she has common ground with the men in the barbershop, and with Obama’s proposal, in calling for background checks.


“I tell my friends that everyone should get the opportunity to apply for citizenship, but there must be conditions,” she said. “They can’t be pushed through really fast. They need to check people’s backgrounds thoroughly.”

At El Gallo Giro restaurant in Huntington Park, a heavily Latino city, the tables and chairs reflect the colors of the Mexican flag, and the Virgin of Guadalupe has a shrine.

But only one man in the lunchtime crowd showed interest when Obama’s speech came on the TV on Tuesday, interrupting a Spanish-language celebrity talk show.

Felipe Velasquez, 56, who came from Sinaloa, Mexico, said he crossed into the country illegally in the early 1980s. Years later he was among millions of immigrants who received amnesty in the last major overhaul of immigration law.


He applauded Obama’s call for broader paths to citizenship. “People come here thinking it means a future. It’s a fantasy,” Velasquez said. “The only ones who do well are banks and big companies. The rest of us struggle all our lives to get ahead.”

Farther north in Kern County, a place both heavily Republican and heavily dependent on farm labor, reaction was mixed.

Randy Hubble, 55, a construction worker who was having lunch at Cope’s Knotty Pine Cafe in Bakersfield, has clear views on what to do with the country’s estimated 11 million illegal immigrants: “Put them on the bus, and put them back where they came from.”

The local congressman, McCarthy, is a staunch conservative and the House majority whip, and he will alienate voters like Hubble if he supports Obama’s plan.


However, other locals, including Kyle Steinberg, who works as a Caltrans supervisor and votes Republican, expressed support for a citizenship plan, provided applicants joined mainstream America. “They just need to accept our way of life and not try to make this into Mexico,” Steinberg said.

Dennis McDonnell, a retired schoolteacher and a Democrat, worries that immigration reform will create a flood of illegal crossers. “Too many people forgot what the ‘il’ in ‘illegal’ means -- it means ‘not,’ ” he said.

Since deporting 11 million people isn’t possible, he said, he could live with a legalization plan with the conditions Obama articulated -- pay taxes, learn English and go to the back of the line.

William Mashburn, 62, a small-business owner who voted for Republican Mitt Romney in the November election, believes that wages have been depressed because illegal immigrants settle for less.


“If they became citizens, it would eliminate that, which is good for them and for the prosperity of the country,” he said.



Marosi reported from Escondido, Chang from Bakersfield and Goffard from Costa Mesa. Times staff writers Sam Quinones in Los Angeles and Cindy Carcamo in Santa Ana contributed to this report.