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Amid Hope, Pico-Union Takes Some Precautions : Neighborhoods: Many residents are also concerned about the involvement of immigration agents in enforcement efforts.


At the El Tigre market on Hoover Street, the owners have hired extra security guards and cut back on shelf stores. Down the block on Pico Boulevard, the shoemaker (who doubles as an income tax preparer) has removed his papers, photocopying machine and other valuables to his home for safekeeping. And up on 6th Street, Concepcion Aguilar has stocked up on tortillas, beans, rice and other necessities, the better not to be caught short in an emergency.

"We all pray to God that nothing bad happens," said Aguilar, who vends cooling slices of cucumber, mango and jicama from her street stand in the shade of a ficus tree. "Everyone's worried that los disturbios could come again."

As a federal jury deliberates the case against four officers accused of violating Rodney G. King's civil rights, the vibrant Pico-Union/Westlake neighborhood--a bustling immigrant enclave west of downtown that was among the communities hardest hit during last year's disturbances--is bracing for trouble.

Merchants, residents and others in the densely populated neighborhoods express fervent hopes that last year's cataclysm will not be repeated. But a volatile combination of wild rumors, legitimate fears and bad memories have served to stoke the tension on the streets, where entrepreneurs hawk false immigration documents and a universe of other items legal and illegal.

"I hear it's going to be on again," said Jesus Mejia, 18, who pushed a baby carriage outside a neighborhood taqueria.

Already, many are poised to head indoors at the first sign of trouble.

"We pick up our grill, throw it in the car, and we're out of here," said Jorge Ramos, who sells roasted corn on the cob ( elote s) from a makeshift stand along 6th Street. "If we had a palace, we'd have more to worry about."

Merchants have been advised to board up windows and post "Latino Owned" on their storefronts, one community worker noted, mimicking the "Black Owned" signs that were credited with saving some shops from pillagers last year.

The two major immigrant social service organizations--the Central American Refugee Center and El Rescate--took to the devastated corner of Pico Boulevard and Alvarado Street last week and issued a plea that residents remain calm. Both groups were making plans to offer food, shelter and other aid in case an emergency arises.

Residents express alarm about a potential rerun of last year's bitterly resented riot tactic: the deployment of U.S. immigration authorities--including more than 400 Border Patrol agents--in Latino areas.

In contravention of their own policies, Los Angeles police turned hundreds of people over to the immigration service, enraging the community. About 1,200 immigrants arrested during the unrest were returned to their homelands, mostly to Mexico and Central America.

"Sending in immigration agents will make things worse, not better," said Oscar Andrade, executive director of El Rescate.

Community representatives have met with Police Chief Willie L. Williams and urged him to rule out assistance from the Immigration and Naturalization Service, said Michele Milner, staff attorney with the Central American Refugee Center. But no guarantees have been forthcoming.

Police spokesman Lt. John Dunkin said the department plans to follow its policies of not turning detainees over to the INS and not taking people into custody solely because of immigration status.

Rico Cabrera, an INS spokesman, declined to comment on the service's potential role in case of an emergency.

On the streets of Pico-Union/Westlake, reminiscent of the animated thoroughfares of Latin America, the notion of sending in immigration agents elicits strong denunciations.

"It's not right to bring in la migra, " said Aguilar, the street vendor, whose meager earnings help support a family in El Salvador. "We work here honestly. We earn a few dollars a day, enough to pay my rent and defend my children. We don't bother anyone."

For another Salvadoran immigrant, Ezequiel Giron, who sells tools, electrical equipment, keys and a broad array of other items from a mat along 6th Street, the fires and chaos of the riots were eerily reminiscent of the turmoil in his troubled ancestral home near Guazapa Volcano, long one of El Salvador's most combat-ridden zones.

"With the violence here, sometimes I wonder if we wouldn't be better off back in mi tierra, " mused Giron, who has five children here.

During the riots, Giron was forced to seek out customers aggressively because most residents stayed off the streets. He spent weeks lugging his wares along an improvised circuit of 19 area coin laundry facilities, which still attracted some people.

"In this business, one has to be on top of things," he said, holding a sledgehammer that he was hoping to sell this day. "I hope that never happens again."

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