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Latinos Work to Shore Up Border

Although at times reviled for their stand, some are working with other groups to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.

August 14, 2005|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Lupe Moreno knows the immigrant struggle. She has lived all her life in Santa Ana, a gateway community for Mexican immigrants. Her father helped smuggle them into the country; her former husband sneaked in illegally.

Now Moreno is part of the growing movement to stem the flow of illegal immigration.

"I want people to know that there are Latinos who are law-abiding," she said. "We need to protect our borders."

Although polls suggest that the majority of Latinos are sympathetic to illegal immigrants once they have settled in the United States, opinions vary by generation, home country, economic class and personal values. Some Latinos are strongly opposed to crossing the border illegally.

A few, such as Moreno, stand out because they have publicly embraced political activism, banding together with mostly white organizations to register their opposition.

Their participation appears welcome. Indeed, at a May convention in Las Vegas, organized by the staff of a conservative radio talk show and attended by well-known figures who oppose illegal immigration, Moreno and a handful of other Latinos stood together on the stage at Cashman Field, where they were applauded for their position by more than 200 people in the mostly white audience.

"It's important that we have these folks here, because I think it shows that we are attracting a wide variety of people," said Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the citizen border patrol known as the Minuteman Project. "This is not just about white against Mexican. It's not a racist issue. It's about putting an end to illegal immigration."

Wayne Cornelius, director of the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies University at UC San Diego, said that Latinos who oppose undocumented immigrants "are useful to the anti-immigrant camp. They give it credibility and help blunt accusations of racism."

Latinos who take a stand against illegal entry say they have good reasons for their activism, but they pay a price for speaking out.

"This is not about racism, but about doing the right thing," Moreno said. "[People] think we are all brown so we are loyal to people who break the law."

Moreno said her dedication to the cause contributed to the breakup of her 26-year marriage, as her then-husband could no longer tolerate her increasing criticism of undocumented workers. He declined to comment for this story.

Her children, she said, worry that she is in harm's way, because she is perceived by some Latinos as a turncoat.

Anti-illegal-immigration activist Andy Ramirez of Covina said he has faced similar backlash. "They say we are traitors, or coconuts," Ramirez said.

Earlier this year Ramirez, 37, formed Friends of the Border Patrol, similar to the Minuteman Project, which led citizen patrols in April along the Arizona-Mexico border to monitor and report illegal crossings. Ramirez hopes to conduct patrols on Sept. 16, Mexican Independence Day, and Minuteman founder Gilchrist said he would be there in support.

Ramirez, a onetime professional hockey player disabled by multiple sclerosis, said he had waited hours for medical care in hospitals that treat undocumented immigrants.

He believes that people who come to this country illegally consume resources that could improve the lives of legal U.S. residents, including money for health and education.

Other Latinos resent the competition that undocumented immigrants bring to the workplace, said Louis DiSipio, a UC Irvine political science professor.

Although activists like Ramirez and Moreno are among a small minority, polls and voting patterns suggest that opinion among Latinos on immigration is by no means monolithic.

A Gallup poll in June, for instance, found that 32% of Latinos believe immigration levels should be decreased, and three in 10 believe that the government should not make it easier for undocumented immigrants to become citizens.

That is in comparison to half of non-Latino whites who favored a decrease and eight in 10 whites who thought the government should not make attaining citizenship easier.

Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at UC Berkeley, said Latinos in the United States have long held mixed feelings about whether to keep ties with Mexicans and therefore, undocumented immigrants.

Latinos feel pulled between two identities, he said. When there is a strong desire to be American, some Latinos cast aside everything Mexican.

From that perspective, "what jeopardizes Hispanics is the continuing influx of immigrants," said Lopez. "They are on the street corners. They tend to be dark, poor and uneducated. That brings down the status of the group."

Others say it's normal for Latinos' opinions to diverge on this and other issues.

"There is a political pluralism in the community," said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute at USC. "As you get second, third and four generations, it's not unusual that there will be a varying opinions."

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