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Over the Line? : Citing Questioning of Mayor, Activists Say Border Patrol Targets All Latinos


POMONA — When U.S. Border Patrol agents pulled over Pomona Mayor Eddie Cortez in his beat-up pickup truck recently and demanded to see his identification, he wasn't surprised.

As a third-generation Mexican-American growing up in Texas, Cortez said, he was stopped by police who suspected that his brand-new pickup truck must have been stolen.

Therein lies his complaint.

"I don't have a problem with them enforcing the law, because I'm pro-law," said Cortez, 53, who owns an automotive shop and was voted into office this year on a pro-business, law-and-order stance. "My whole complaint is the method being used, which is, you get stopped if you are Mexican. Period."

Cortez said the stop occurred about a month ago after he noticed Border Patrol agents raiding an auto business on Mission Boulevard and decided to see where they were headed next. Constituents had complained to him that the Immigration and Naturalization Service nets many legal residents during their raids of Pomona. The city is more than 52% Latino, according to the 1990 U.S. Census.

To local activists who have long claimed that skin color alone marks Pomona's Latinos as suspect, and who fear that current anti-immigration fervor heralds further discrimination, the incident with Cortez has sparked political action.

Several groups are organizing a hot line for residents with complaints about immigration stops, and Latino leaders plan to meet next week with Assemblywoman Hilda L. Solis (D-El Monte) to appeal for legislative help in assuring civil rights protection against discriminatory stops, community activist Fabian Nunez said.

"We're certainly going to use him as a subject with state legislators," Nunez said of Cortez. "The line that is drawn between who is a suspicious person, who is documented and who may be undocumented is a very fine line. How does the INS determine if a person is suspicious? They look at how the person is dressed, and the color of their skin.

"If the mayor of the city of Pomona is in a situation where he's been discriminated against by the INS, then everybody else in this city who is Latino is in the same situation."

INS spokeswoman Virginia Kice said U.S. Border Patrol officials from the Riverside district, which handled the stop, plan to get the mayor's account of what happened.

"They've heard a lot of conflicting stories," Kice said. "They want to have an opportunity to talk to everyone involved and find out exactly what transpired. If someone feels we acted inappropriately, we want to know about it, and that would be the case if it were the mayor or John Q. Public."

Kice said agents stop people based on suspicious behavior, not skin color.

"I'm not going to get into specifics about the kind of appearances and behaviors that encourage our people to make those stops," she said, "but this idea that there's a profile and that profile means that people in beat-up vehicles with certain types of clothing and certain types of features will be stopped, that's erroneous."

Kice said Border Patrol agents arrest 1 million illegal immigrants yearly, many of whom are not Latino.

"I think there are some special interests involved in this who are perhaps fanning the flames for their own reasons," she added.

Cortez said his run-in started when he noticed the agents questioning two mechanics, dressed very much as Cortez was in overalls and greasy boots, at a Mission Boulevard garage. He thought the agents were heading for a day laborer site, where some residents have complained of INS sweeps, and decided to see for himself. But as he approached South Buena Vista Avenue, he was pulled over, he said.

"(The agent) said, 'Identify yourself, or else I will put you in the van with the rest of them.' Twice, I ignored their request for identification. . . . I wanted a reason. If I did not break a law, why were they stopping me?" he said.

"To me, things are not going to change," Cortez added. "The real reason for the Border Patrol stopping me, and the agent was very frank with me, is the 'profile.' I said, 'If I was driving my Cadillac or my Corvette, would you be asking me all these questions?' And he said, 'No. You would not fit the profile.' "

Cortez stressed that he is opposed to illegal immigrants receiving welfare, and that he believes laws against illegal immigrants should be enforced--equitably.

"It's the application and the methods used to apply those laws that to me are unequitable. Put me in a line with 100 people, and I'll do everything that those 100 people do. But don't single me out because I am Mexican," Cortez said. "I wouldn't have a problem if they had closed off Mission Boulevard and said, 'We're going to stop every car.' But they didn't. When they do a sweep, all they do is stop Latino people."

When he finally flashed his mayoral credentials, the tone of the conversation changed markedly, he said.

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