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CALIFORNIA ALBUM : Prop. 187 Preview Folded in Encinitas in 1980s : Despite its own bruising civic battle over illegal immigrants--or perhaps because of it--the city kept a low profile when the initiative put similar issues on statewide stage.

November 13, 1994|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

ENCINITAS — In politics, as in theater, there are dress rehearsals where the plot and the players are displayed before a small audience before moving to the larger arena.

Take Proposition 187, now center stage from Eureka to San Ysidro.

If California is Broadway for this political-social-cultural drama, then Encinitas was New Haven.

This prosperous seaside suburb of San Diego--known for its flower fields and youth sports programs and safe neighborhoods--became the focal point in the late 1980s for the rising phenomenon in California of civic anger directed at illegal immigrants.

There were other communities in San Diego and Orange counties that heard similar complaints from their residents at roughly the same time as Encinitas.

But when the television networks, the wire services and the New York Times wanted to do stories on the growing clash between affluent Southern California homeowners and impoverished immigrants, they came to Encinitas. The beachfront setting proved journalistically irresistible.

For five acrimony-filled years, Encinitas homeowners demanded that City Hall do something about the groups of young Latino men standing on street corners soliciting work as day laborers and camping on private and public property.

A civic ordinance was adopted to penalize employers for hiring illegal immigrants off street corners, but it was struck down by a federal judge in 1990. Those in Encinitas who had complained the loudest about immigrants in their midst reluctantly admitted defeat.

Given that history, you might figure Encinitas would have become a hotbed of Proposition 187 support--that those same residents and politicians, having seen their efforts thwarted, would have been overjoyed that at long last something was going to be done to discourage illegal immigration and that the governor was playing a leading role.

It didn't happen.

As the debate flared statewide, Encinitas (population 57,000) was quiet. If anything, the city took an outward attitude of "been there, done that."

"It was surprising what a non-issue 187 was here," said Gregory Dennis, a free-lance journalist, environmental consultant and Encinitas resident.

Catholic and Lutheran ministers in Encinitas and an official from the local synagogue were part of an ecumenical movement against Proposition 187, but the City Council declined to take a stand. There were no campaign signs on city streets.

Although the city decisively supported the initiative at the polls, there were no forums and no large demonstrations. Most of the letters to the local newspaper dealt with a hotly debated local measure about whether to allow construction of a subdivision and golf course.

Ex-Councilwoman Marjorie Gaines, whose high-voltage fights with immigrant advocates were an early indication of the level the emotional rhetoric would reach in the statewide immigration debate, took a hands-off attitude toward Proposition 187. "I have chosen not to be political," she said.

None of the nine candidates for City Council was willing to commit the city to another round of trying to rid the streets and canyons of immigrants, even though the legal and political winds now seem to be favoring the employer-sanction approach.

"All we got last time was a bunch of bad national publicity," said Councilman John Davis at a candidates forum.

*

The issue of newly arrived immigrants living in tents and cardboard lean-tos was waiting for the first City Council when the communities of Encinitas, Leucadia, Olivenhain and Cardiff-by-the-Sea incorporated as the city of Encinitas in 1986 to free themselves from the pro-growth attitude of the San Diego County Board of Supervisors.

The controversy gave the new city, 25 miles north of San Diego, a sense of being born into crisis.

At meetings that went long into the night, residents complained to the fledgling council of trash heaps, public urination and crime problems. Shop owners complained that their customers were being intimidated.

"Nobody saw it coming but then the issue just exploded," said Dennis, who was managing editor of the North County Blade-Citizen during the controversy.

In retrospect, the scenario appears familiar: Defining illegal immigration as a problem. Declaring a state of emergency. Appealing to the federal government for help. Sending the feds a bill. Devising a proposed solution that brought passionate opposition from the editorial pages and cries of racism from immigrant advocates. Protests in the streets.

"We never realized we were blazing a trail for the rest of the state," City Manager Loren Wasserman said with a touch of sarcasm in his voice.

By the standards of Proposition 187, the Encinitas ordinance was mild.

The ordinance would have slapped penalties on those who employ illegal immigrants rather than on the immigrants, the kind of employer-sanction approach that even some opponents of Proposition 187 say is needed.

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