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O.C. Group Helps Fuel Anti-Immigrant Furor : Viewpoint: Many of its members believe the nation's identity is at stake. Critics say rhetoric is divisive.


ORANGE — The testimonials were volunteered as if it were a support group for victims of a tragic loss.

The moderator told of a man in the audience who is dying from cancer and unable to get a possibly lifesaving operation because neither he nor the hospital could afford it. "However, as we all know, there are millions of dollars that have been spent on heart transplants and operations for illegal immigrants," Barbara Coe told the group.

Another woman offered her story: While applying for a community college course, she was told to present a birth certificate and pay $40. She went on to report, erroneously, that school officials are not allowed to ask illegal immigrants for citizenship documents or to reject anyone unable to pay. "For them, it was free," she insisted.

"We've lost our country without ever firing a shot," a man said. "And they've done it using our money."

The recent gathering of 70 or so people in this community room at an Orange County shopping mall was for a meeting of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a one-year-old organization that has sought confrontation and found controversy in its efforts to address a wide array of social problems it attributes to illegal immigration.

The coalition started in Huntington Beach early last year as an umbrella group that now represents almost a dozen local organizations throughout California. In the past year, it has grown into a major grass roots network that claims a statewide mailing list of more than 10,000 people and a schedule of activities that has frequently placed it at the forefront of the immigration debate.

Coalition members have testified at public hearings in Sacramento and at local governments throughout the state, including the Orange County Board of Supervisors. They have also picketed employment stations where immigrants seek work; passed out warnings to restaurants about undocumented worker laws; encouraged boycotts of companies operating in Mexico and they are exploring a possible statewide initiative to pass tougher, anti-immigration laws.

Coe, chairwoman of the organization, said the coalition is also planning a class-action lawsuit against the federal government on behalf of citizens who have been adversely affected by illegal immigrants. To prepare for the court action, she said the group placed the following classified advertisement in the National Review, a conservative political journal:

"Wanted: Testimony from U.S. citizens who have been victims of crimes either financial (welfare, unemployment, food stamps, etc.), educational (overcrowding, forced bilingual classes, etc.) or physical (rape, robbery, assault, infectious disease, etc.) committed by illegal aliens."

In the spectrum of responses being heard in the growing debate over immigration reform, the California Coalition for Immigration Reform represents the nativist answer. Many of its members believe the problem of illegal immigration goes beyond the economic burdens that Gov. Pete Wilson and other political leaders have complained about. They say the nation's identity and even its sovereignty are at stake.

"Citizens must be made aware of the danger of the U.S. becoming the next Third World nation," the group's literature warns. ". . . Facts and figures repeatedly prove that illegal aliens, first committing a criminal act by violating our borders and then bringing their values and culture into our midst, are major contributors to our mounting financial burdens and moral and social degradation."

Many in the audience at the Orange County meeting had come to hear the keynote speaker, former Rep. William E. Dannemeyer, a champion of conservative causes and a critic of lax immigration laws. Most of the 70 people in the audience were white seniors and working class.

Coe, 59, the chairwoman of the group, says this is her first foray into organized politics. She formerly worked in the crime analysis unit at the Anaheim Police Department but now is a clerk in the department's records division--a demotion that she blames in part on her high-profile work on the immigration issue.

Also a member of the group is Howard Garber, a retired eye doctor and well-known community activist who has crusaded for a number of conservative causes, from the death penalty to welfare reform.

Critics of the coalition say they fear the group's harsh rhetoric is divisive and that by inflaming emotions on both sides of the issue it could extinguish hopes for a constructive debate about possible reforms.

"It's like when there is a debate and somebody starts making personal attacks," said Valerie Martinez, an aide to state Assemblyman Richard Polanco (D-Los Angeles). "It stops everything; it's irrelevant. There is a situation being created where two factions are being established and both factions are moving farther and farther apart as this debate goes on."

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