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California and the West

Controversial Billboard Removed

Border: Sign declaring California 'The Illegal Immigration State' is taken down after protests by Latinos. Supporters of the message vow to bring it back.

June 24, 1998|DAVID REYES and ROBERT OURLIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

A controversial billboard near the Arizona border that declared California "The Illegal Immigration State" was taken down Tuesday by an advertising company as a result of threats to destroy the sign by Latino activists who consider it racist.

The billboard near Blythe, installed by the Orange County-based Coalition for Immigration Reform, which co-sponsored Proposition 187, was removed by Martin Media because of threats by Mario Obledo, former state Health, Education and Welfare secretary and president of the California Coalition of Hispanic Organizations, a company spokeswoman said.

Officials of the company also said they came to the decision to remove the sign after Burger King and Best Western Hotels were targeted for boycotts because they had leased billboard space near the controversial sign.

"Martin Media believes in free speech and the 1st Amendment," said Connie Wauhob, a manager in Bullhead City, Ariz., "But this is not our message. We were providing it for our customer. The billboard was being threatened along with customers on the other side of the billboard."

Obledo, who help found the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, thanked supporters and praised the decision to remove the sign, but he said he will watch for any other billboards that may be insensitive to immigrants and minorities.

"It's a victory for America," Obledo said from his office in Sacramento. "It's a victory against hatred and against racism and it's great for America."

He said he still plans to hold a rally at the billboard Saturday to thank his supporters.

"I will tear them all down," he said, adding the method would depend "on where they are and how we can get to them."

"I intended to set fire to the [first] sign, but the sheriff called and said there was a natural gas plant nearby," Obledo said. "I didn't want to endanger the town of Blythe, so we decided we were going to paint it instead."

Barbara Coe, president of the Coalition for Immigration Reform, had planned to bus supporters to Blythe for their own rally. The sign, which was erected May 7 along Interstate 10, read: "Welcome to California, the Illegal Immigration State. Don't Let This Happen to Your State."

Coe, a co-sponsor of the 1994 ballot measure that sought to deny educational and social services to illegal immigrants, said she and her supporters were not going to take this latest action "lying down."

"We're studying our alternatives right now," Coe said. "But I can tell you one thing, this puppy is going back up as well as more. So if Mr. Obledo thinks his terrorist tactics have accomplished a great deal, he is very wrong, as well as others."

Coe said she was angry at the advertising company's action and said Martin Media succumbed to "terrorist tactics."

"They ripped it down this morning," Coe said. "They just broke the contract, canceled it because two other customers who advertised through them had received the same threats."

Wauhob confirmed that Best Western hotels and Burger King had been targeted by Latino organizations for economic boycott and damage to their signs.

Representatives of those companies could not be reached for comment.

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