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City's Border Policy Sparks Outcry

Immigration activists sound off on Costa Mesa council members' decision to train police to screen arrestees for possible deportation.

January 04, 2006|Jean O. Pasco | Times Staff Writer

Activists clashed in Costa Mesa on Tuesday night over the city's decision to become the nation's first authorizing its police department to enforce federal immigration laws.

One man was arrested on suspicion of disrupting a public assembly.

The City Council's 3-2 vote last month to train police officers to work with federal immigration officials and sheriff's deputies to determine the immigration status of suspects arrested for other crimes has made the city a battleground in the national immigration controversy.

Mayor Allan Mansoor, who proposed the idea, has stressed that enforcement will focus on those accused of serious crimes and that no random sweeps will occur.

"The public has been demanding this," said Mansoor, who is also an Orange County sheriff's deputy.

About 80 activists massed before Tuesday's council meeting, singing in Spanish and carrying hand-painted signs reading "Nobody Is Illegal" and "Mansoor Is a Bigot." Other signs proclaimed the United States the property of Mexico and Americans as the interlopers.

Some 40 opponents of illegal immigration also gathered, some shouting, "America is a nation of laws!"

The matter wasn't on the council's agenda, and those who had voted for it -- Mansoor and council members Eric Bever and Gary Monahan -- made no move to reconsider their decision. But the meeting served as catalyst for a confrontation that many predicted would be repeated throughout the country as the issue of illegal immigration heats up in federal, state and local elections this year.

Many immigrants live in Costa Mesa's Westside, an enclave of older tract homes and apartment buildings, markets and ethnic restaurants. The 2000 census showed that 29% of the people living in the city of 108,000 were foreign born. Of those, 66% were from Latin America.

About three dozen speakers lined up to alternately commend and condemn the council for allowing local immigration enforcement, and for a separate vote to close a day laborer job center that had matched employers and workers for 17 years.

"This is a nation of law, and people who come here should respect our laws," said Laura Carder of Costa Mesa, who supported the action. "You're supposed to come through a screening process to get here." Francisco Jorge said he drove to Costa Mesa from Mojave to address the council because illegal immigration is "completely out of control."

"No one has the right to come to the U.S. illegally, and no true citizen would mind a police officer asking what his citizenship is," said Jorge, who said he immigrated legally from Cuba. "We need to have our police involved in this problem because we are overrun."

Several speakers urged the council to reconsider its vote, arguing that immigration was the responsibility of the federal government.

"Any reasonable person would say illegal immigration is a problem in this country [and] the present system isn't working," said Paul Kelly of Costa Mesa. "It's inherently an unjust system, but it's a national problem."

David Garcia, a Native American from Arizona, said he worried that those who appeared to be from Mexico, as he does, would be confronted.

"You have to be very careful when you start finger-pointing," he said.

Others accused the council of promoting racism and trying to push Mexican-born residents out of the city.

"We demand a reversal of the [immigration] agreement," said a man identifying himself as Coyotl Tezcalipoca of the Tonantzin Collective, a pro-immigrant group. "We know you guys want to change the demographics of Costa Mesa. We know your plot, and we're going to fight this to the end."

Tezcalipoca -- whom police later identified as Benito Acosta, 25, of Costa Mesa -- was the final speaker before the council ended an hour of debate. He protested being cut off and was forcefully removed by several police officers, triggering a brief scuffle.

Lt. Clay Epperson, a spokesman for the Costa Mesa Police Department, said Acosta was arrested and booked at the Costa Mesa Jail on suspicion of disturbing an assembly, interfering with a council meeting and resisting a police officer.

During the scuffle, one woman broke into the anti-slavery ballad "We Shall Overcome" while opponents quickly drowned her out by singing "America the Beautiful."

"This whole issue of illegal immigrants in Costa Mesa has been building for 20 years, and it's finally getting lanced," said Byron de Arakal of Costa Mesa. "It almost doesn't matter what side of the issue you're on, it has to be lanced."

The crowd of about 125 included members of two citizens groups that marched to the Costa Mesa Police Department on Dec. 23 protesting the immigration vote.

Jim Gilchrist, a retired Aliso Viejo accountant who ran for Congress last month after co-founding the Minuteman Project, a controversial border security group, also attended Tuesday's meeting. He thanked the council for "doing the right thing" by enforcing immigration laws.

But some in the crowd worried that giving police the power to check immigration status would make Latino residents reluctant to report crimes for fear of deportation.

City officials are working on the details of the program. As adopted, police will sign up for training with federal enforcement agents and the Orange County Sheriff's Department. Sheriff Michael S. Carona has proposed training 200 deputies to use federal databases to uncover illegal immigrants.

City officials estimate they could begin questioning suspects about their immigration status this year. The city would review the plan after a year.

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