Declaring that illegal-alien crime in North County has nearly reached the crisis stage, Rep. Ron Packard on Thursday proposed formation of a task force of local and federal officials to tackle the problem.
The Carlsbad Republican said he hopes the special coalition can formulate a novel and effective strategy to help curb crime caused by illegal aliens.
The task force proposal sprang up during a 90-minute meeting at Packard's Carlsbad offices of elected officials and law enforcement authorities from across the county's northern region.
Although Packard emphasized that he wants to avoid arousing "any group that has deep sympathies for the aliens," his proposal for a task force to grapple with the crime issue almost immediately drew criticism from some local Latino leaders.
The Rev. Rafael Martinez, director of the North County Chaplaincy, cautioned that a special committee to study the crime issue could foster discrimination against Latinos in North County.
"There is the potential that this could breed more discrimination, animosity and cruel treatment," Martinez said when informed of Packard's proposal. "There has already been a degree of polarization in the community. We don't need to stress that kind of polarization any more."
Those sorts of divisions flared in Carlsbad and Encinitas in 1987, as residents complained to city officials about the impact of illegal aliens on the safety of their homes and their families. In an effort to diffuse the controversy, each city convened a task force to study the alien issue.
Packard insisted during an interview after the meeting with local leaders Thursday that his task force would be careful to differentiate between illegal aliens who travel here to seek work and those who cross the border to commit crimes.
"We're not dealing with those that come to work in the fields, the ones who send money back to their families," Packard said. "We're dealing with the criminal elements."
The congressman said that he and other local lawmakers have in recent months noted a startling increase in the number of residents complaining about crime caused by illegal aliens.
"The agencies have been inundated by letters and phone calls that tear at your heart strings," Packard said. "Our people have been put in a situation where they're literally being driven from homes where they once lived in peace and contentment.
"We've reached the point of crisis almost and we need to find solutions. We need a strategy to keep the pressure on the criminal element and drive them underground."
Just what those solutions are, however, remains to be seen. Packard said the group that met Thursday drew up few concrete answers or strategies. Nonetheless, the congressman and several other officials involved remain bullish on the proposal.
"When a problem is this acute, the solutions will come because they have to," said Vista Mayor Gloria McClellan, who participated in the meeting with Packard.
McClellan said help could come in the form of public education, advising homeowners of ways to thwart burglars and thieves.
Packard said another possibility is to reinstitute the tough border patrol sweeps that netted hundreds of undocumented laborers about a year ago.
"We cleaned the streets off, but we didn't follow up," Packard said. "I'd like to look at the possibility of developing a series of on-going sweeps to deter illegal aliens from coming."
Carlsbad Police Chief Bob Vales, who also attended the meeting, said it will take more police and border patrol agents, jails and other law enforcement resources to reverse increases in alien crime. In addition, a task force might be able to help provide ways of easing crime perpetrated by aliens against other undocumented workers, Vales said.
"There's no question that aliens are starting to commit more and more crime," Vales said. "You look at the number of stolen cars, they're up 70% in Carlsbad over the last year, and it's about that same level countywide. Aliens aren't stealing all those cars, but they're stealing a lot of them."
Martinez, however, questioned just how much crime is being committed by illegal workers. He noted that a recent report compiled by a citizens task force in Encinitas showed that Latinos commit a small percentage of crimes in that city, and most of those are relatively minor thefts.