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3-Woman Campaign Targets Day Labor

The illegal-immigration foes seek to thwart -- even punish -- those who would hire.

April 03, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

It is a jarring sight on a busy suburban street corner in Southern California: three well-dressed women singing "God Bless America," handing out leaflets and writing down license plate numbers.

On a recent Saturday morning they were in the Orange County city of Lake Forest with a message about illegal immigration: Those who hire day laborers may be breaking the law because many of the workers are undocumented.

The three women lead an informal group, started last year, that stages small but sometimes tense neighborhood protests against illegal immigration two to three times a week, from San Diego to Glendale.

"It's important for us to stay out in the public eye, to educate people about this subject and tell employers that there are consequences for hiring illegal immigrants," said one of the women, Robin Hvidston, who drove 40 miles to Lake Forest from her home in the San Bernardino County community of Upland. Indeed, employers can be fined for hiring those whose status is illegal.

In all, about 30 other protesters, half of them men, joined Hvidston, Eileen Garcia and Debbie Satter at a corner in Lake Forest where day laborers have sought work for a decade.

The group approached motorists seeking to hire laborers and tried to hand them fliers about their potentially unlawful actions. They later gave license plate numbers to federal immigration agents. Also, they turned over information and photos to a website, www.wehirealiens.com, which seeks to embarrass people who hire day laborers.

Hvidston, Garcia and Satter call themselves "Gilchrist's Angels," named after Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the Minuteman Project citizen border patrol. The three kept bumping into each other at rallies against illegal immigration throughout Southern California and decided to form their own group.

After a week of mass marches and school walkouts largely organized by immigrant advocate groups against proposed legislation toughening illegal immigration penalties, Gilchrist's Angels have stepped up their micro-protests.

The women and their fellow protesters blame illegal immigration for problems they see in their communities, including unwieldy gatherings of day laborers, declining school test scores and increased strains on local governments.

Recent polls show that most Americans believe greater restrictions should be imposed on illegal immigration.

The threesome manages to draw small crowds on even short notice. In preparation for their events, they usually e-mail about 500 supporters, and 20 to 50 show up.

Gilchrist says he doesn't mind that the three women use his name to promote their cause and says they represent a growing movement across the nation.

"The women, particularly these women behind this movement, have made it strong," Gilchrist said. "People are seeing that the federal government hasn't done what it's supposed to. They are just speaking out where they can."

The women rankle immigrant advocates who brand them racist and say they spread hateful messages with posters telling illegal immigrants to go back home.

"This is my country too," said Coyotl Tezcalipoca of Costa Mesa, who met up with the women as they counter-protested a pro-immigrant demonstration that he attended. "They are spreading messages of hate." He has been active in opposing his city's new plan for police to help enforce immigration law.

The women's protests have not been entirely peaceful.

In Fullerton recently, two people on opposite sides of the debate came to blows that reportedly involved kicking. Both were arrested on suspicion of misdemeanor simple assault. No one suffered significant injuries.

Increasingly, more groups are protesting at the sites where day laborers seek work, Gilchrist said. And that's happening not only in Southern California, he said, but in other border states and in cities such as Las Vegas, Chicago and Boston.

A recent university study of U.S. day laborers estimated that three-fourths are undocumented immigrants, primarily from Mexico and Central America. Forty percent have been in the United States for more than six years, and 28% of their children are U.S. citizens.

Hvidston, a property manager, said she was never an activist until she came across immigrant advocates demonstrating near her home. She remembered being outraged when a person she believed to be an undocumented worker told her she couldn't walk on the sidewalk because of the rally.

When Hvidston conducted an event in Laguna Beach, she was joined by Garcia, 49, of Laguna Beach, who often wears white pants with sparkly red and blue outfits for the occasion.

Garcia was miffed because a Laguna Beach day labor center was receiving about one-third of its $75,000 annual budget from the city. That money, Garcia argues, could have helped victims of a recent mudslide in the city.

"I'm not religious, but I feel a calling," she said. "I feel I've been chosen to do this."

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