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Immigrants Find Power in Protest

Recent Border Patrol arrests in San Juan Capistrano create fear and anger but spur some residents into action.

June 16, 2003|H.G. Reza | Times Staff Writer

The sun-bleached U.S. flag in front of Aurelia Navarro Monroy's home in San Juan Capistrano went up days after she and her family moved into their new condominium on Sept. 11, 2001.

After years of hardship, including a period of homelessness, the family felt a solidarity with their adopted country and felt their American dream was finally coming together. Monroy and her husband, Mario, were born in Mexico, but their three children -- ages 10, 6 and 4 -- are "Americanos," she said.

On Easter Sunday, life took an unexpected turn. Monroy was picked up by Border Patrol agents while walking home from the town's historic mission.

A stay-at-home mom who said she has waited more than seven years for her residency application to be processed, the 36-year-old woman is back with her family after a six-day odyssey with immigration officials. Like others caught up in recent arrests in San Juan Capistrano's immigrant community, Monroy finds herself torn between emotional extremes -- fear and empowerment.

Some in town are taking exaggerated steps to stay clear of immigration officials. Mothers here illegally are asking those who are U.S. citizens to walk their children to school to avoid the Border Patrol. Children ask parents to learn English, thinking it will prevent their deportations. Women time loads of wash at the self-service laundry, darting in and out to avoid being in public too long.

But many of the same residents -- some here without documentation -- have joined protest marches and turned out in force one recent evening when a representative from the Mexican consulate arrived to hear their concerns. On Wednesday, more than 400 people met with the Mexican consul, lawyers and a U.S. immigration official in a church gymnasium.

"When 400 people show up for a meeting like this, they must be upset about something," said Janna M. Evans, a community outreach officer from the Laguna Niguel immigration office. Evans called the meeting "a constructive event."

The emotions running through San Juan Capistrano have been fed by rumor and arrests; everyone seems to have a horror story to share. But last week's arrest of a man, whose children were in school at the time he was taken away, seems to have caused the greatest upwelling of fear and anger.

Arrests by the Border Patrol are a way of life in the city's immigrant community, by far the largest in southern Orange County. The city is only 15 miles from the Border Patrol checkpoint in northern San Diego County, and its old but bustling railroad station is a point of arrival for newcomers from Mexico.

But acceptance swung to fear, and in many cases anger, when residents started coming forward this spring with stories of Border Patrol agents arresting parents and young children as they walked the youngsters to school. Parents said kids were afraid to go to school. Some said people had been arrested near churches.

Border Patrol officials said the charges were overblown and that agents had not strayed from their usual enforcement activities. Spokesman Ben Bauman said agents were making arrests only at the city's train depot and bus station.

Border Patrol and immigration officials did not respond to requests to discuss specific cases.

Guadalupe Rios, 34, does not believe the Border Patrol denials. Rios, a single parent of a boy, 12, and girl, 5, makes a living cleaning houses and has lived in the U.S. illegally for 15 years.

Like most immigrants in San Juan Capistrano, Rios lives in the shadow of the mission, around which her community revolves. The neighborhood is dense with apartments. A playing field at what once was the city high school is often alive with soccer games.

"They drive down our streets and by the schools," Rios said of the Border Patrol agents.

Rios said she usually attends every meeting scheduled by her children's schools. But she chose not to meet with her son's teacher for an end-of-the-year session about his academic progress for fear of being picked up by the Border Patrol.

She said a neighbor who is here legally has been walking her daughter to school and picking her up.

"Many of us are living in fear, as are our children. My daughter doesn't want me to leave the house. She tells me that I shouldn't speak Spanish because the migra will arrest me," Rios said, referring to immigration officials.

A laundry tucked in a strip mall at the south end of town was empty on a recent afternoon except for Esperanza Ortiz, 37, and her mother-in-law. Both women are in the country legally, and Ortiz works as a housekeeper at a local hotel. She was doing her laundry and that of a neighbor's on her day off.

"Before the migra raids, this place would be full of women doing laundry at this time of day. But people are afraid to come do their wash because of the Border Patrol," Ortiz said. "It's an injustice what they're doing, arresting women and children."

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