Evacuations raise deportation fears

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Los Angeles Times Staff Writers

SAN DIEGO -- Flames were only one worry for some illegal immigrants in the fire zone. Equally scary were the crowded roads and evacuation centers, heavy with law enforcement officers, including U.S. Border Patrol agents.

Some wondered if they would be deported if they went to shelters.

“We decided that we wouldn’t go because they ask for your name and everything,” said day laborer Jose Salgado, waiting for work off the 5 Freeway near Rancho Santa Fe.

His friends working in the nearby tomato fields had different concerns, he said: “They didn’t know if they would have a job when they got back.”


Disasters can magnify the marginalized status of people here illegally. Seeking help can mean taking risks, and decisions can be informed as much by rumor and miscommunication as by facts and actual events.

In response to recent rumors, U.S. authorities deny that they have been rounding up illegal immigrants at evacuation centers, and Mexican Consulate officials in San Diego who visited numerous sites have found no evidence to support the rumors. “We are not arresting fire evacuees. It’s absolutely ludicrous to suggest otherwise,” said Lauren Mack, spokeswoman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Immigrant rights groups and the American Civil Liberties Union, however, claim that authorities have created a climate of intimidation through neglect and such policies as asking for identification at some shelters.

During the wildfires, more than 100 federal agents were redeployed from their border posts to lend assistance. They helped evacuate homes, staff checkpoints, guard against looters and assist at evacuation shelters.

At Qualcomm Stadium, a Border Patrol communications vehicle provided key logistics support. Agents in their distinct green uniforms mingled with law enforcement from all over the county.

The mere presence of Border Patrol was enough to scare off some immigrants. “Having people at evacuation sites in Border Patrol uniforms is asinine,” said Enrique Morones, president of the Border Angels, an immigrant rights group.


Rumors of deportations grew Wednesday when San Diego police arrested a Mexican family at Qualcomm Stadium for allegedly stealing food they intended to resell. After being handed over to border agents, the family, which had been living in the U.S. for several years, was deported. Footage of their arrest was replayed numerous times on local television stations.

Though Mexican consular officials and some immigrant rights groups said the arrests appeared to be an isolated incident, some migrants avoided going to Qualcomm. “They were petrified,” said Remy Bermudez, a teacher who served as a volunteer at the stadium. “They said, ‘After what happened . . . we’re afraid.’ ”

The ACLU and immigrant rights groups claim illegal immigrants were subjected to racial profiling at Qualcomm and were abused by some volunteers who questioned their legal status. They have also said the city did not go out to migrant camps to tell people to evacuate.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders, said identification wasn’t required to enter shelters. And if people living in remote migrant camps were not told to evacuate, he said, it wasn’t part of any calculated effort to hurt migrants.

The mayor, he said, has always looked out for the needs of the migrant community and has tried to protect them from encounters with Minutemen and other groups that oppose illegal immigration.

“The mayor has bent over backward to protect the migrant population,” said Sainz.

Critics say local and federal officials should be more sensitive to how immigrants might perceive things. A checkpoint that might seem inconvenient but understandable to a citizen could represent potential deportation to an immigrant, they say.