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For Some, Avalon Is Alcatraz

Wary of federal officials aboard ferries, many illegal immigrants refuse to leave Catalina, forgoing shopping trips and visits with relatives.

February 24, 2005|Daniel Hernandez | Times Staff Writer

The bright orange postcard is easy to spot on display at souvenir shops that dot Avalon: "Help! I'm marooned on Catalina Island."

Goofy keepsake for most visitors, but for Avalon resident Jorge Rodriguez, 28, an illegal immigrant and construction worker who's lived on the island since he was a teenager, the card's gag has an uncanny note of accuracy.

"You can't go there anymore," Rodriguez said, gesturing north to the mainland. "Since they started checking los IDs, everyone's afraid."

Avalon's sizable Latino community has been abuzz for months with stories and rumors of periodic documentation checks by U.S. Coast Guard and immigration officials on the ferries that connect Avalon to the mainland, where workers go for cheaper food, medical care, family visits and to spend their wages at Southern California theme parks.

For generations, the Spanish-speaking locals have called the mainland "el otro lado," the other side, borrowing a phrase more commonly used to refer to the U.S.-Mexico border. But for some, the 22 miles of sea that separate Avalon from mainland Los Angeles really has become a border, one that many are wondering whether they'll ever risk crossing again.

"I haven't left since I heard they were out there," said restaurant worker Juan Moreno, 43, sitting on a bench at Island Plaza during a lunch break, calmly finishing a cigarette. "Well, what else can I do?"

Moreno went to Avalon as many others did: young, sometimes barely teenagers, eager to fill jobs in Catalina Island's tourism industry. Usually, a relative lured them directly to the island with stories of plentiful jobs, a safe, quiet community and Catalina's natural beauty.

With false papers or no papers at all, illegal immigrants have thrived as cooks, maids and builders and in other low-wage or service jobs. Many have built families in the one-square-mile town of about 3,000. A little less than half the population is Latino, according to the 2000 U.S. Census.

"For a long time, one of us would go back home [to Mexico] during wintertime, telling people 'It's going good, there are jobs,' and then come back with two or three others," said Jose Luis Cervantes, 44, a naturalized citizen who seems to greet everyone he meets on Avalon's brick sidewalks with a familiar wave.

Cervantes said he's lived in Avalon since he was 14. "I know everyone here. We're all like one family."

That closeness, some said, is what made news of the document checks spread so quickly.

The Coast Guard's Sea Marshals program, which was launched after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, is randomly checking occupants of all boats entering local harbors, not just commercial ferries to and from Avalon, said Chief Warrant Officer Lance Jones, a Coast Guard spokesman.

"We're not targeting anybody," Jones said. "We're doing spot checks on IDs. We're showing a presence."

Passengers who can't produce valid documents are turned over to the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Jones said.

Immigration authorities also have joined the boat checks, said Lt. Tony Migliorini, another Coast Guard spokesman.

Reports of Coast Guard officials springing from hiding after the boats leave harbor have been circulating in the community and produce resentment.

"We try to keep it as random as possible for it to be effective," Migliorini said. "We need an element of surprise."

Officials in both agencies said they had no figures on how many people have been detained or deported as part of the operation on the Catalina ferries, which usually are filled with tourists headed to Avalon's village atmosphere and cozy hotels.

Some undocumented Avalon workers said they've heard of only three people who were detained, one of whom, they say, was deported.

For those who still risk it, the prospect of deportation has made the trip a nerve-racking one.

"You get on there and you're looking all around, waiting for them to come out," said Rodriguez, the construction worker.

The situation on Catalina Island "really plays into the schizophrenic nature of our immigration laws and our immigration situation," said Angelica Salas, executive director of the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles. "Now you have a population that can no longer come to the mainland. They're literally trapped on Catalina Island."

Still, the population of illegal immigrants on Catalina is adapting to the situation. Some, for instance, send one person to shop for many.

Prices in Avalon are far higher than on the mainland, and there also are no Latino markets or authentic Mexican eateries in Avalon. Residents often shop in Long Beach or Huntington Park. They also visit family and friends or enjoy some nightlife. On the island, there's the Chi Chi Club just off the Avalon boardwalk. Its Latin music night is on Mondays.

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