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Anti-Illegal Immigration Group's Forum Plan Foiled

Concerns over racism thwart Save Our State's effort to find allies in the black community.

August 12, 2005|Lisa Richardson | Times Staff Writer

Save Our State, the in-your-face anti-illegal immigration group, was thrilled. Its long-held desire to forge ties to the black community was at last to be realized.

Invited to speak to a black community forum in Leimert Park this month, SOS founder Joseph Turner was sure that by the time he finished expressing his outrage about the impact of illegal immigration on jobs, schools and neighborhoods, Save Our State would have new, equally outraged allies.

But it was not to be. Turner's invitation was rescinded shortly after it became public. The story of how and why that happened says much about how heated the debate over immigration policy has become in black communities in Southern California and how much the tone of that debate has discomfited many black leaders.

For Turner, the chance to speak at the Urban Policy Roundtable, a forum run by the political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, would have been a coup on several fronts: Save Our State would expand its geographical reach into South-Central; an infusion of black activism around illegal immigration would force elected officials to take heed; and with blacks on board, SOS could, perhaps, rid itself of persistent allegations of racism.

But no sooner did Turner post a euphoric message online announcing the meeting than opposition mobilized against it.

Hutchinson's group has become an influential forum in South Los Angeles. Politicians and school officials make it a first stop when reaching out to blacks. Pro-immigration groups were outraged that Turner might gain such a well-known platform, and they were determined to stop him.

They vowed to protest. Hutchinson was bombarded with angry e-mail. A liberal advocacy group sent him a five-page letter of "concerns" outlining what it called Save Our State's "violent, hateful, racist actions." Hutchinson invited immigration advocates to present their side at the meeting, but none would share the podium with Turner.

Hutchinson, who said he had barely heard of SOS when Turner asked to come to the group, began to have second thoughts. He perused the SOS website and says he was repelled. He decided to withdraw the invitation.

One statement on the website, in particular, has stayed with him. It reads:

"Aren't you tired of watching your state turn into a Third World cesspool right before your eyes?"

"That is calling people of color scum and garbage," he said. "You essentially are calling me that, too. I think there is a racist tinge."

Although there were many comments disavowing racism on the website, there also were rants against Mexicans and the "brown hordes," Hutchinson said.

Because of the blurring of the line between opposition to illegal immigration and disdain for immigrants in general, "I'm not sure Turner isn't racist," Hutchinson said.

Turner is sure he isn't racist. Aggressive, angry and actively looking for confrontation, yes, he says. Racist, no.

He is equally adamant that somehow, somewhere, he is going to demonstrate to blacks that they belong in the anti-illegal immigration movement.

"Sometimes I think I have a better pulse on what's going on in the black community than the Al Sharptons of the world," he said. "If you ask blacks what they want, they'd say: 'We're tired of those ... Mexicans coming over the border and starting trouble.' That's what they'd say."

On that point, Hutchinson said, Turner is not far off the mark.

"Jobs," he said. "It all comes back to jobs. If Turner came, I believe he would have a huge constituency, a huge wellspring of sympathy and support," Hutchinson said. "He would be met with thunderous applause."

Hutchinson says he has seen firsthand the frustration among blacks at illegal immigration. At his meetings, the subject keeps coming up. The topic of the discussion could be autism or homelessness or relations between the community and the police. "About a year ago, I started noticing that no matter what the subject is, illegal immigration comes up," he said.

For example, after a toddler, Suzie Marie Pena, was killed in a shootout with Los Angeles police officers, Hutchinson invited a member of the SWAT team to address the group.

"One of the first questions was, 'Are there illegal immigrants on the SWAT team?' " he said. "I can't emphasize this enough. There is such a deep hostility, antipathy and antagonism in the black community about this issue of illegal immigration."

David Olivas, an attorney and city councilman in Baldwin Park, keeps an eye on the burgeoning hostility. He monitors the SOS website daily and was the first person to contact Hutchinson with concerns about the group.

"After [Proposition] 187, things simmered down," he said, referring to former Gov. Pete Wilson's ballot proposition that attempted to deny public services to illegal immigrants. "Wilson was out of office, a lot of 187 was found to be unconstitutional and ultimately viewed as a lingering political mistake."

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