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Undocumented? Unwelcome

Escondido is using a wave of policies to try to drive away illegal immigrants. Critics say the San Diego County city is targeting Latinos in general.

July 13, 2008|Anna Gorman | Times Staff Writer
  • Teanagers hang out in the evening along Elder Place in Escondido because it's too hot to go inside. Most of the apartments in the area lack functioning air conditioners, and many are in foreclosure, boarded up and showing signs of neglect. Of the shabby neighborhood, Francisco Flores, 19, said, "it makes us feel forgotten." More photos >>>
Teanagers hang out in the evening along Elder Place in Escondido because… (Don Bartletti / Los Angeles…)

Escondido city officials refuse to give up.

Two years ago, the city passed an ordinance to punish landlords for renting to illegal immigrants. But it rescinded the rental restriction after a legal challenge was filed and bills began to mount.

Now Escondido is trying a new approach to what it calls the "public nuisances" of illegal immigration, citing residents for code violations such as garage conversions, graffiti and junk cars.

The city is also debating a new ordinance that would restrict overnight street parking without a permit. In addition, it is drafting a policy that would prohibit drivers from picking up day laborers along some streets.

"We learned from the rental ordinance," Councilman Sam Abed said. "We changed our focus to quality of life issues."

Like many city leaders frustrated with the federal government, Escondido officials said they were taking immigration enforcement into their own hands. They said they were fighting the perception that Escondido, a city in affluent northern San Diego County with a burgeoning Latino population, has become a destination for illegal immigrants.

Councilman Ed Gallo said he regularly receives complaints from Escondido residents about illegal immigrants crowding schools, hospitals and neighborhoods.

"If you are not here legally, you don't belong here," Gallo said. "We're talking about image and appearance. . . . We are trying to change the image of Escondido."

The city's police department is also playing a role.

Police Chief Jim Maher said his department conducted two "criminal alien" sweeps this year. Officers identified illegal immigrants with criminal records who had been deported but then returned. In two separate sweeps, Escondido police arrested 31 illegal immigrants and turned them over to federal authorities for possible deportation.

"Our police department cannot secure the border," Maher told a small crowd at a town hall meeting. "But we can do everything possible to remove the criminal aliens from this community."

Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack said the police department sweeps were a "unique enforcement approach" because the officers acted largely on their own.

"Their assistance is greatly appreciated," she said, commending the department for verifying in advance that the targets were deportable.

The police department's most controversial move, however, was establishing checkpoints to find unlicensed drivers. Last year, the department set up 18 license checkpoints, resulting in 293 impounded cars, 14 arrests and 296 citations. Maher said those checkpoints helped officers find at least 290 unlicensed drivers and helped reduce the city's number of hit-and-run crashes.

"Some folks say they are controversial because they target a specific segment of the population," he said. "That is absolutely not true. Our checkpoints are for one reason and one reason only: traffic safety."

Escondido officers ask about immigration status only if the drivers do not have licenses. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to obtain driver's licenses in California. In the last six months of 2007, officers identified six illegal immigrants and referred them to federal authorities.

The multi-pronged campaign was aided by a resolution passed by the City Council last year to "address the public nuisances of illegal immigration."

The following sentence appeared in the original version, but was removed before the resolution passed: "Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life."

Escondido is one of dozens of cities around the country that have employed local ordinances in an attempt to "purge their populations of illegal immigrants," said Wayne Cornelius, who directs the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at UC San Diego.

Between May 2006 and October 2007, 131 cities introduced anti-illegal immigration ordinances, including several that sought to prohibit renting to illegal immigrants. Fewer than half were passed. Many were struck down by the courts.

Many Escondido residents have praised the council and the police for taking a stand on illegal immigration.

Tisha Bennett is among the more vocal supporters. Two years ago, she said, the daughter of a friend was hit and killed by an unlicensed drunk driver who had been deported and sneaked back into the country.

"It's about the law," she said. "All we want is people to obey the law."

Bennett formed a group called Citizens of Escondido for Road Safety and collected signatures in support of the driver's license checkpoints. She also backs the proposed parking ordinance.

"The whole issue is quality of life," she said. "It's not legal versus illegal. It's the overburdening of our system."

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