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Issues of immigration, privacy clash in Vista

ACLU sues to block the city's release of names of residents issued permits to hire day laborers.

September 20, 2007|Tony Perry | Times Staff Writer

VISTA -- The often-emotional debate over immigration roiling cities across the country has morphed here into an unusual clash between individual privacy rights and public access to governmental records.

The privacy rights at issue are not those of the immigrants but of the residents who hire them as day laborers from ad hoc hiring centers, mostly the parking lot at the Vons shopping center at Escondido Avenue and South Santa Fe Way.

The government records in dispute are permits Vista City Hall issues to residents wishing to hire laborers. Many of the laborers are illegal immigrants, to the consternation of anti-illegal immigration activists.

Under a controversial ordinance adopted last year, residents are required to get a hiring permit -- which is accompanied by information about immigration and workers' compensation laws and a sample "contract" in English and Spanish.

The American Civil Liberties Union of San Diego and Imperial counties filed a lawsuit in July to block disclosure of the names, addresses and phone numbers of permit recipients after a Vista resident aligned with an offshoot of the anti-illegal immigration group the Minutemen requested an updated list.

A San Diego County Superior Court judge today will hear arguments from both sides as he considers the ACLU's request for a permanent order barring release of the names. Judge Michael Orfield on July 9 issued a temporary restraining order until attorneys could file their written arguments.

The ACLU is concerned that residents hiring day laborers could be harassed by activists opposing illegal immigration. Vista has had several demonstrations over the volatile issue, with sheriff's deputies keeping opposing sides separate.

A coalition of newspapers and the California Newspaper Publishers Assn. is opposing the ACLU's bid. So is a Washington, D.C.-based group, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which argues in favor of tougher enforcement of immigration laws.

For a year the names were routinely disclosed to the public without incident in this city of 90,000 in northern San Diego County.

But when the ACLU this summer settled a lawsuit that had sought, unsuccessfully, to overturn the Vista ordinance, it garnered a promise from the city to notify the group when anyone asked for the names.

And when Michael Spencer of the Vista Citizens Brigade requested the names, the ACLU sued again.

ACLU attorney David Blair-Loy said the names do not fit the definition of public records. Those records, he said, allow the public to assess the workings of government, not to pry into the lives of citizens.

In this case, he said, the names have nothing to do with how well government is working. He noted an appeals court decision that upheld a decision by San Jose to withhold the names of people making noise complaints.

California, he noted, has a right to privacy embedded in the state Constitution.

"To me," he said, "this case is not about immigration. It's about a constitutional right to privacy."

But immigrant rights are a priority for the ACLU. Although it failed to overturn the Vista ordinance, it persuaded nearby Escondido last year to drop an ordinance that would have required landlords to check immigration status before renting an apartment.

"It's an obvious issue for us, given the fact we're a border chapter," said Blair-Loy. "We go where the issues are."

Alonzo Wickers IV, a lawyer for the Los Angeles Times, finds the ACLU arguments "frankly kind of silly because this information had already been released and there is no evidence that permitees have suffered any sort of harassment."

Attorneys for The Times, San Diego Union-Tribune, and the North County Times have filed lengthy arguments in opposition to the ACLU.

"There is a substantial reduction in your expectation of privacy when you seek a permit from government," Wickers said. "This battle over immigration threatens to undermine the right of public access to public records."

Of 121 people who have sought permits, the names of 111 were released before the ACLU lawsuit was filed.

A code-compliance officer patrols the Vons parking lot in Vista every day except Sunday, reminding would-be employers that they need a permit, which can be issued, free of charge, on the spot.

The ordinance does not require employers to check the immigration status of workers, but the information that accompanies the permit details the legal downside of employing people who are in the country illegally.

Deputy City Manager Patrick Johnson said the permit process seems to have eliminated the problem of employers ripping off day laborers by not paying them or not giving them a ride back to the hiring spot.

The Vista City Council, battered by months of heated controversy over immigration, has opted not to enter the legal fray.

City Atty. Darold Pieper said the city believes that the names are a matter of public record and should be disclosed but is willing to abide by whatever Judge Orfield decides. Pieper said that even without his participation, the courtroom will be filled with lawyers primed for passionate argument.

"There will be a great deal of articulation already," he said.


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