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Fear of Exile Vexes Many in South O.C.

San Juan Capistrano streets 'go dead' when immigration agents are around, one activist says.

December 13, 2005|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Construction worker Miguel Garcia was headed to a discount store when his sister-in-law called and told him to get off the streets as quickly as he could.

"I told him, 'Don't go out, the migra is in town,' " she said. Passing along a rumor, the sister-in-law said federal officials had arrested an undocumented immigrant at the store where Garcia was headed.

Although the report was apparently untrue, Garcia, 36, who has been in California illegally for three years, spent the rest of the day at home in San Juan Capistrano with the blinds shut.

So goes life in the small, tightknit immigrant communities of southern Orange County, largely an area of affluence and master-planned cities. Taking such precautions in San Juan Capistrano, known for its historic mission, swallows and rolling hills, is common among undocumented immigrants who work in restaurants, farms and homes.

"When word gets out, you can really see the town go dead," said Johnny Diaz, a community activist and former president of the San Juan Elementary School Parent-Teachers Assn.

Illegal immigrants in Los Angeles and Santa Ana are relatively unafraid, because of their larger numbers. But there is a distinct chill in southern Orange County cities, where some Latinos say they feel conspicuous.

When rumors spread that the U.S. Border Patrol is in town, parents say school attendance drops, mothers ask those who are U.S. citizens to walk their children home from school, and men look over their shoulders.

"When [immigrants] say goodbye on their way to work, they always have the fear that they won't be coming back," said Adela Coronado, a community activist in San Juan Capistrano. "When children see that fear, they live with that fear themselves. And mothers are in constant fear of a family being separated. It is truly the life of a fugitive."

Immigrant communities have increased in size in southern Orange County in the last decade: 23% of San Juan Capistrano's population is foreign born, mostly from Latin America, according to 2000 U.S. census figures. In neighboring San Clemente, foreign-born residents make up 13% of the population. And in Laguna Niguel, it's 11%.

Beyond the fear of being deported, immigrants in San Juan Capistrano and other southern Orange County cities say their day-to-day worries are heightened by the nearby presence of the Border Patrol, which polices areas within 90 miles of the border and operates a checkpoint just south of San Clemente.

In addition, some are concerned by Orange County Sheriff Michael S. Carona's plan to have some of his deputies make immigration checks on people detained in connection with a felony. Although that task normally has been left to federal immigration officials, an increasing number of police agencies are exploring ways of checking to see if suspects are in the country illegally.

On a recent weeknight, more than 50 people -- mostly immigrants -- piled into a bus and rode to a church in Santa Ana to listen to Carona describe his plans. Several of them protested the sheriff's proposal.

Statistics, though, might lead one to think the fears are misplaced. There have been 175 arrests by the Border Patrol in the area in the last two months. During the same period last year, there were 437 apprehensions, Border Patrol spokesman Mario Villarreal said. In contrast, there were 16,300 arrests in the last two months in Yuma, Ariz.

The Border Patrol denies that it conducts sweeps and says it makes arrests during routine patrols.

Carona, trying to blunt an increase of fear in immigrant communities, signed a covenant promising to work with the Orange County Congregation Community Organization, a nonprofit group that promotes community activism, as his plan is implemented next month. Under his plan, immigration status would be checked only if there was reasonable suspicion that a suspect had committed a felony.

The plan is welcomed by San Juan Capistrano Mayor Wyatt T. Hart, a former Orange County sheriff's captain who says he has supported the city's Latino community. But if undocumented immigrants are scared in his city, "it's because law enforcement is doing its job," he said.

"I am opposed to illegal immigration," the mayor added. "I am extremely supportive of legal immigration. We've seen ... we are having a lot of problems with illegal criminal elements. I think they need to put something in place to check that."

Immigrants and their advocates agree that criminals should be caught but are suspicious of giving immigration powers to local law enforcement. They fear racial profiling and increased anxiety among residents, and they wonder how further enforcement could tip the fragile relationship between the immigrants and the larger community in southern Orange County.

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