We were confronted twice this spring with the sight of hundreds of white U.S. citizens yelling anti-Mexican slogans at the border near San Diego. It was a jarring experience, driving home the message that hostility against Mexican immigrants--against Latinos--is rising.
The signs of intensifying anti-Latino feeling are many. From New York to California, the English Only movement has relentlessly attacked bilingual education and ballots. The inclusion of undocumented immigrants in the census (which affects reapportionment and the provision of government services) was repeatedly challenged. Raids by the immigration service, La Migra, continue unabated.
While these are all reprehensible, the Light Up the Border movement is an an unprecedented escalation of vigilantism that will exacerbate anti-Mexican sentiment and discrimination, and have a negative impact on increasingly tense United States-Mexico relations. On some weekend evenings now "a thousand points of light" has come to represent for the Chicano/Mexican community a thousand points of xenophobia.
Light Up the Border merits special attention because it is a mass movement composed primarily of white U.S. citizens demanding the closure of the border to undocumented immigrants. Its leadership has organized massive gatherings at the San Ysidro-Tijuana border. Before sunset, members park their automobiles at the border and, on cue, illuminate the crossing area with their headlights to give Latino immigrants the signal that they are not wanted in the United States and to "assist" Border Patrol agents to apprehend Mexicans attempting to enter this country.
Light Up leaders include former San Diego mayor and convicted felon Roger Hedgecock, who uses his radio program to agitate anti-immigrant sentiments and recruit participants. He and other members claim that the group's actions are spontaneous, civic-minded "volunteerism" initiated by citizens concerned about the flow of illegal narcotics over the border and the loss of American jobs to foreigners. However, immigration experts and Latino activists discount the claims of spontaneity and say that links exist with racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan.
What is especially alarming is its mass vigilante character. At the most recent mobilization in April, observers counted more than 500 cars and 1,000 men, women and youths, many of whom hurled racist anti-Mexican remarks at Latino counter-demonstrators.
For the last two decades, immigrants have been made scapegoats for society's ills by government officials, right-wing lobbying groups like the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR) and racist groups like the Ku Klux Klan. The Light Up the Border movement is simply an outgrowth of this.
It is not surprising that the movement was born in San Diego. During the last few years, the border area has become so militarized and dangerous that many refer to it as a "war zone." Bandits and paramilitary groups roam the area. It is the site of the highest incidence of violence, robberies and sexual assaults against immigrants. From May, 1988, to May, 1989, there were 33 homicides and 380 reported violations of civil rights. Rep. Mel Levine (D-Culver City) referred to the violence as a "virtually hidden war being waged at the California border."
It is in this context that Light Up the Border and other forms of vigilante activity have emerged. Very recently, a group of teen-agers wearing "camouflage" gear stalked a group of immigrants and killed two of them. A merchant at a country store seized a Mexican man, handcuffed him, beat him, then tied him up in a field with a sack over his head. The message: Immigrants--many of them legal farm workers--are not welcome in San Diego.
Elected officials and community organization leaders ought to unequivocally condemn border violence and vigilantism. In this climate of growing racial intolerance and violence, the Light Up movement may spread its ugly tentacles into other areas of the United States unless we move to stop it now. With glasnost and perestroika, border tensions are easing in Eastern Europe. We ought to demand that, in the words of journalist Roberto Rodriguez, migrastroika keep pace here. It is hypocritical for us to support greater freedom of movement in other parts of the world while looking the other way at intensifying repressive actions in our own land.