August 25, 2006

The Tinderbox

The angry immigration debate in one California town, like those in others around the country, is tearing the community apart.

By Susy Buchanan

COSTA MESA — A shrill voice, raised in song, pierced the angry chatter inside the Costa Mesa City Council chambers. All eyes turned to a dark-haired woman wearing a white scarf. Fist raised, eyes scrunched, she belted out a warbling but spirited version of “We Shall Overcome.” Nearby stood Jim Gilchrist, co-founder of the anti-immigration Minuteman Project, and several of Gilchrist’s followers. They quickly began sing-shouting “America the Beautiful,” trying to drown out the civil rights-era protest spiritual.

This impromptu singing duel capped the pandemonium that erupted during a Jan. 3 Costa Mesa City Council meeting after a young Hispanic man who was testifying against Costa Mesa’s ongoing anti-immigrant crackdown asked the crowd to stand in opposition to the mayor’s policies. The mayor ordered his microphone be shutoff, and when he refused to leave the podium he was swarmed by police officers and strong-armed out the door.

If Costa Mesa Mayor Allan Mansoor and his supporters have their way, thousands of undocumented Hispanic immigrants will be similarly run out of Costa Mesa. Last December, the City Council narrowly passed a resolution pushed by Mansoor calling for the city’s police officers to be trained and empowered to arrest illegal aliens for violating federal immigration law. Costa Mesa was the first city in the country to pass such a measure.

Additionally, Mansoor and his allies on the City Council, Gary Monahan and Eric Bever, have disbanded the city’s human rights committee, shut down the city’s day laborer center, and sliced funding for charities that serve Hispanics. There has also been talk of closing the Latino swap meet and even banning pick-up games of soccer from public parks.

More than 40% of Costa Mesa’s 110,000 residents are Hispanic, many of them undocumented workers from Mexico. But while the leaders of some nearby cities have declared their communities “sanctuary cities,” Mansoor’s administration has taken the exact opposite stance with a hard-line campaign to roll up the welcome mat.

That campaign has transformed Costa Mesa into a closely watched and especially volatile tinderbox within the raging national debate over immigration. The success or failure of Mansoor’s policies could set the tone for how other cities around the country deal with what is quickly emerging as one of the most divisive political issues in the United States. Outside activists from both sides of the debate have flocked to Costa Mesa and declared the city a critical battleground.

“Costa Mesa is at the epicenter of the immigration debate and a microcosm of what is taking place across the United States,” says Humberto Caspa, a professor at the University of California, Long Beach. Of the mayor and his supporters, Caspa says, “Their objective is simple: to kick all the Latinos out.”

‘Mexican-Hating County’

Costa Mesa, “The City of the Arts,” is located on 17 square miles of bluffs just inland from the California coast, in the midst of Orange County, a staunchly conservative region with a long history of ground-breaking initiatives designed to drive out Hispanic immigrants. “Orange County is the most Mexican-hating county in the country,” says Orange County Weekly syndicated columnist and investigative editor Gustavo Arellano.

The county is home to Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist, and to the California Coalition for Immigration Reform (CCIR), a major force behind 1994’s Proposition 187, which sought to deprive undocumented immigrants of social services, health care, and public education.

Costa Mesa’s proposal to effectively transform its local police officers into immigration cops is based on a new policy developed by the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, which has spent nearly two years working out an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for Orange County sheriff’s deputies to investigate and make arrests for violations of federal immigration law (illegal entry into the United States is a federal misdemeanor).

“I’ve never seen our city like this, I’ve never seen it this way,” says Councilwoman Katrina Foley, who along with Linda Dixon is one of two council members opposed to the mayor’s anti-immigration policies. “Usually we get complaints about traffic on the streets, litter in the fields,” Foley says. “We had a reputation of being a city that listens to residents, that works with residents ... and now our city is on the map for immigration.”

Law Enforcement and Latinos

Billy Folsom sits in a booth at Skosh Monahan’s Irish pub nursing a white Russian. Folsom’s a long-haired, tattooed biker and member of the National Rifle Association who repairs police cars for the City of Costa Mesa.

Folsom’s got a story to tell, he says, as he sips from his tumbler.

“I drive cop cars all day long,” he explains, “up and down one little street behind the cop shop,” which is where Folsom tests out his repair jobs and diagnoses mechanical problems.

On this particular street, Folsom says, “there’s a stop sign and a little kid lives in the apartment there, a Hispanic boy, maybe 4 years old. He loves to wave at policemen, which he thinks I am because he sees me in the cars everyday.” Folsom smiles and waves back as part of his routine.

“Well, the City Council resolution was approved on a Tuesday night. On Thursday, I stop at the stop sign and here comes this little kid. But instead of a smile and a wave, the kid throws a clump of dirt at my car then runs away. That’s what this has done to this city.”

Dave Snowden, Costa Mesa’s chief of police for 17 years until his retirement in 2003, worries that kids pelting cop cars with dirt clods is just the beginning of the trouble the mayor’s policies will cause for the Costa Mesa Police Department. Snowden knows several cops who recently left the Costa Mesa force for jobs in more immigrant-friendly cities, and he doesn’t blame them. Building and maintaining trust with undocumented immigrants has become essential to effective local police work in Southern California, Snowden says. “You need to build a confidence level in the [Hispanic] community,” Snowden says, and the may-or’s proposals undercut that confidence. His greatest fear is, “the broadening of this policy to where cops stop people on the street because they are a different color.”

Racism’s Rudder

While law enforcement experts weighed in against the enforcement policy, it had the full support of longtime Costa Mesa resident and notorious white supremacist Martin Millard. A City Council gadfly who has the mayor’s ear, Millard classified Hispanic immigrants in a 2003 essay as “a bunch of cockroaches with brown shells, brown eyes, and black hair. They are indicative of the changes that have helped California become like a dark corner under a refrigerator.”

Millard has been a featured columnist on the website of the hate group Council of Conservative Citizens, where he railed against Hispanic immigrants since at least 1999. Millard also contributes to the racist website New Nation News, where he wrote, “We have no compunction against discussing the differences between different breeds of dogs, so why should we be so afraid to discuss the differences among different breeds of humans? The real issue is that our society is being transformed into something different than it has been and this is being done through the invasion of our land by those who are upsetting the traditional genetic balance we have had in this country.”

Mansoor recently defended his decision to dismantle Costa Mesa’s Human Rights Commission in a letter to The Orange County Register: “When the government-funded committee was in existence the only beliefs it allowed were extreme-left views... People who said they believe illegal immigration was wrong were labeled ‘racist’.”

There is no question that label fits Millard perfectly. But despite Millard’s openly racist beliefs, Mansoor has been known to carpool to City Council meetings with him, and last year the mayor appointed Millard to Costa Mesa’s Redevelopment Committee. The Mayor’s critics view Millard as a Rasputin-like figure, a fringe wacko who somehow wormed his way to influence and is now a guiding force behind Costa Mesa’s anti-immigrant agenda.

“Millard is starting to get traction,” says Billy Folsom, the cop car mechanic. “Racism is prevalent everywhere, but it’s like a boat without a rudder. When the boat gets a rudder is when you need to start to worry, and Millard started being that rudder.”

Protest Night

It’s Friday night in Costa Mesa and the setting sun bruises the evening sky as a gaggle of young activists arrive in groups of twos and threes on the sidewalk in front of Skosh Monahan’s Irish Pub, the bar where Billy Folsom criticized the mayor a few nights earlier.

Inside is Minuteman co-founder Jim Gilchrist and a handful of his supporters. Gilchrist is a frequent visitor to Costa Mesa’s council meetings who makes it a point to come to Monahan’s on protest night to show his support.

It’s a familiar scene for all concerned, a weekly protest organized by pro-immigrant activists that’s been taking place since early February.

This night, though, Gilchrist’s exit is swift. Accompanied by the co-founder of Latinos for Immigration Reform, Lupe Moreno, Gilchrist and friends are off to do a little protesting of their own.

The handful of Minutemen make their way to El Chinaco, a tiny El Salvadoran restaurant with a large “Keep Costa Mesa Friendly” sticker on its front door.

Empty Tables

It’s hard to say whether Gilchrist’s action affected business, since El Chinaco owner Mirna Burciaga says business has been abysmal at the restaurant since last December. Many of her immigrant customers are so afraid of being rounded up and deported that they don’t go out to eat, she explains.

A vocal critic of Mansoor and frequent speaker at City Council meetings, Burciaga has owned El Chinaco for 18 years but says she recently has been forced to dip into her savings to keep the restaurant afloat.

She’s not alone. Every week, dozens of Latino business owners gather to discuss the effect Mansoor’s policies are having on their sales and strategize about ways to combat it.

Burciaga has decided to run for City Council in November. Gary Monahan is prevented by term limits from running again after 12 years on the council, and Mansoor is up for reelection (the City Council selects the mayor from among its five members).

A win in November by someone like Burciaga would mean a pivotal shift in the balance of power on the council — and she would be the first Latino to hold public office in Costa Mesa’s 50-year history.

Whether voters in Costa Mesa back the mayor’s anti-immigrant politicking is something other cities around the country will be playing close attention to as communities struggle to deal with growing numbers of immigrants. Should a hard line on immigration prove beneficial for fledgling politician Alan Mansoor, some observers predict similar measures in other towns across America.

“All roads eventually come back here to Orange County,” says Orange County Weekly columnist Gustavo Arellano, citing the battle in Costa Mesa as just another example — along with the Minuteman movement and Proposition 187 — of Orange County’s influence on national immigration politics. “What happens here spreads to the entire country.”

Reprinted from the “Intelligence Report” of The Southern Poverty Law Center

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