A petition drive to ban day-labor centers and bar illegal immigrants from renting apartments in San Bernardino has gathered enough signatures to force a City Council vote on the proposal, potentially setting off another political maelstrom in a Southern California city grappling with immigration issues.
The results come three days after hundreds of thousands of protesters took to streets nationwide to demonstrate the political and economic power of legal and illegal immigrants -- and as Congress tries to bridge the political divide over immigration reform.
"I'm expecting this to be a knockdown, drag-out fistfight," said Joseph Turner, executive director of anti-illegal immigrant group Save Our State, who led the petition drive. "If something like this passes in San Bernardino, it's going to send shock waves through the national immigration debate. The opposition has a lot to lose."
Turner gathered 2,216 signatures to invoke a rarely used provision of San Bernardino's city charter that would force council members to vote on the proposal in 10 days, without any amendments. If the council rejects the ordinance, the measure automatically goes before voters on a citywide ballot.
The proposal would prohibit illegal immigrants from renting or leasing property, holding landlords liable and subject to a minimum $1,000 fine; allow police to impound vehicles used to transport undocumented workers; require the city to deny permits, contracts and grants to employers that hire illegal immigrants; and require city business to be conducted in English.
"This is a racist directive at the immigrant community, "said UC Riverside professor Armando Navarro, an immigrant-rights activist and member of the National Alliance for Human Rights in Riverside. "San Bernardino is going to become critical; this could spread" to other cities.
San Bernardino joins a growing list of Southern California cities that have plunged into the controversy over immigration by adopting local measures to either crack down on illegal migrants or offer them refuge.
The Costa Mesa City Council recently approved using police officers to check suspected felons' immigration status, making the city a flashpoint for the national debate over border control. Protesters swarmed City Hall, already bombarded with e-mails and phone calls from around the nation.
Conversely, in Los Angeles County, the city of Maywood declared itself a sanctuary for illegal immigrants, making the city a target for conservative talk radio and Internet bloggers. The tiny desert city of Coachella in Riverside County passed its own migrant-haven ordinance, saying it would not use local police to enforce immigration law.
In San Bernardino, where nearly half the 200,000 residents are Latino, voters elected Judith Valles, the country's first Latina mayor of a city with a population of more than 100,000, to two terms in office.
Together, San Bernardino and Riverside counties have the 10th-largest concentration of illegal immigrants in the nation, with at least 215,000 undocumented residents, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.
Crackdowns on illegal immigrants have won some political support in the region. The San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors last year unanimously approved screening jail inmates for their immigration status, and Riverside County followed suit last month. Both boards of supervisors faced little of the discord that marked Los Angeles County's plan to do the same.
"The minorities are the majorities in San Bernardino, but they don't vote like it," said Rick Avila, a contractor and the lone Latino candidate in a recent mayoral race in which he finished fourth of five.
At least three members of San Bernardino's seven-member City Council have praised Turner's proposal, although the city attorney has said that some of its provisions could be successfully challenged in court.
"I don't know how this cannot be divisive," said Susan Lien Longville, a former councilwoman. "Either people have come to terms with the city's large immigrant population, or they feel they're the natives. There's no middle."
Mayor Patrick J. Morris, who can veto council votes, won't take a position until the city does a financial analysis, a spokesman said.
Councilman Neil Derry, who along with Chas A. Kelley and Wendy McCammack backs the proposal's tenets, said the council would probably kick the plan to voters, who Derry said would embrace it.
"All those people protesting on the street can't vote," Derry said. "There's a backlash building in the country that you'll see in San Bernardino."