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Costa Mesa's Pioneering Migrant Stance Is Costly

The push to help enforce federal law, and the resulting debate, eat up not just money but time. Sifting e-mail from the public is a major chore.

April 17, 2006|Jennifer Delson | Times Staff Writer

Costa Mesa, population 110,000, is small enough that residents approach City Manager Allan L. Roeder in the supermarket to complain about their garbage pickup or cracked sidewalk.

Now, as Costa Mesa pushes to become the first city to use its police to help enforce federal immigration laws, Roeder and other city administrators are confronted with repeated protests, countless emotional phone calls from opponents and supporters nationwide, and scores of requests for media interviews.

All of it is costing them time -- and the city money.

For some city officials, several hours are consumed each day handling the flood of calls and e-mails. The Police Department estimates it has spent 539 hours -- at a cost of $44,000 to taxpayers -- being on duty during demonstrations and providing extra security at council meetings. The city's attorney has billed about $30,000 to research legal issues related to the policy.

When the city began debating Mayor Allan Mansoor's proposal to help crack down on illegal immigration last year, "I don't believe he or anyone else ever envisioned it taking on the life it has," Roeder said.

Since the City Council endorsed using police to check the immigration status of suspected felons, the tension over the policy in Costa Mesa has steadily increased, mirroring the emotional debate in Congress over an overhaul of the nation's immigration laws.

Each day, phones at City Hall light up with dozens of calls from people saying that those who run Costa Mesa are "patriotic Americans or racists and everything in between," Roeder said.

"Sometimes, it will take us a little longer to respond" to complaints from residents with everyday issues such as code violations and barking dogs, Roeder said. "It has a cumulative effect of slowing down our normal operation."

Critics of the city's policy, which has yet to be implemented because federal officials would have to first train police officers, believe Police Chief John Hensley announced his retirement last week in large part because the controversy put too much strain on him. He said he left for personal reasons.

"I think it doesn't take a rocket scientist to see that, if staff is spending 20% of their time dealing with this issue, that's 20% of the time not spent dealing with issues that are positive for our community," said Councilwoman Katrina Foley.

But, she added, "it's hard to know what's falling through the cracks."

Mansoor said the effort was worth it because the policy would lead to more illegal immigrants who were suspected felons being questioned and eventually deported.

"I'm convinced the majority of the residents of Costa Mesa support what we are doing," Mansoor said. "The costs are a tiny fraction of our $100-million budget.... How about the costs if we take no action?

Mansoor has worked to keep the peace at emotionally charged City Council meetings that now stretch past midnight. During a Jan. 6 session, one speaker was arrested for disrupting the meeting.

Charges eventually were dropped against the speaker, Coyotl Tezcalipoca, who has since become a widely quoted advocate for immigrants. He also sued the city in federal court alleging that his civil rights were violated. The case has so far cost Costa Mesa more than $4,300 to defend, Foley said.

Police officials say they have spent many hours analyzing the policy, discussing it with other police departments and being interviewed by the news media.

"I know that I'm spending 15% to 25% of my day doing immigration stuff, whether it be giving interviews, going to meetings or organizing documents or contacting other agencies," said Police Lt. Allen Huggins.

At 7 each morning, a City Hall employee begins forwarding e-mails on the immigration issue from around the nation to City Council members. There have been thousands.

Among the messages was one from Victor Meza Perez of Los Angeles: "We are not coming to spend money in your city not tonight or ever until this policy is abandoned. No more South Coast Plaza, no more anything." James Welch of Wichita, Kan., wrote: "Thank you for taking a stand against illegal immigration. I lived in California for 20 years and finally had to move my family away because of the degradation of quality of life issues directly related to rampant illegal immigration."

Two weeks ago, after the city's policy was featured on a national TV news program, calls streamed in from viewers on the East Coast even before the show aired in California.

"There's clearly a national following for this," Roeder said. "It really keeps us hopping."

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