November 22, 2006

The Other Side

By Dennis Romero
Award Winner 2006:
Best Investigative/In Depth


Editor’s Note: The writer has received a New America Media Ethnic Media Award for 2006 for his feature story profiling Latinos opposed to illegal immigration, reprinted here. NAM recognized outstanding ethnic media reporters this week in Washington, D.C.

A lonely sign in the sand notes that the Pacific Crest Trail starts here, slightly more than a mile from the one-zip-code town of Campo, California, an hour east of San Diego. It’s a walking trail that extends more than 2,600 miles from this desert along the U.S.-Mexico border to the snow-capped Coast Mountains just inside Canada. A post marks the “southern terminus” of the trail in these badlands, which are dotted with cacti, chaparral, manzanita shrubs, and the occasional shade tree. This is prime, if unforgiving, territory for poor and desperate border-crossers who trek for miles with just the clothes on their backs and the promise of aching work in fields, hotels, and car washes up north.

About a mile east of the southern terminus sign, the California Minutemen have established an outpost a stone’s throw from the international boundary, which is marked by a steel fence. The group is one of a handful of spin-offs of the Arizona-based Minuteman Project, an organization of U.S. citizens who say they are fed up with illegal crossings and willing to show up armed at the border to stop them. This clique is squatting at a rusted steel carport used by the Border Patrol, whom the Minutemen are supposed to call if they spot an “illegal.”

Fifty-year-old drifter T.S. Mc-Mullen, a leather-skinned, muscle-bound ex-marine who wears an “Undocumented U.S. Border Patrol Agent” T-shirt, says, “Terrorists are enemy number one around here. Druggies are number two. And the poor aliens are number three.” But he’s not fooling anyone. There’s been little evidence that terrorists are sneaking across the desert, and these guys may be well armed, but they’re ill equipped to confront the area’s brazen and increasingly violent drug runners. The Minutemen are, quite simply, looking for Mexicans.

The terrain on both sides of the fence is littered with discarded water bottles, snack wrappers, socks, and clothing. Near the outpost, “MINUTEMEN” is painted in black on the rusty, graffiti-lined, corrugated fence. Visitors are encouraged to relieve themselves on the Mexican side. The fence ends abruptly in a washed-out gulley, an opening for hearty vehicles and hearty people. A Minuteman in a Sahara hat is perched on a nearby rock, scoping out American Civil Liberties Union observers in the distance who have come to keep an eye on the Minutemen. It’s spy versus spy, with not an immigrant in sight.

A tangerine dusk makes the fence look like a ribbon of gold on the horizon—a golden ticket—as recreational off-roaders in ATVs buzz by on a valley trail below. Then the Santa Ana winds whoosh like the cavalry is coming. But it’s only a single SUV, which delivers a pudgy, modest woman who’s almost as wide as she is tall. She greets her Minutemen cohorts and gets a friendly reception. She is one of the guys.

Her name is Lupe Moreno, the daughter of a Mexican immigrant, and she is a rarity here—one of only two Latinos in the bunch that day. But if her presence is the picture of incongruity, her reasons for being here reflect the sentiments of a growing number of U.S.-born Latinos who, at the risk of being labeled ethnic traitors, are asking this loaded question: are penniless newcomers—even if they’re compadres, paisanos, blood—eroding the quality of life in America?

“Hell’s bells, I’m an American—I don’t deny that,” Moreno declares as she surveys the shining valley of opportunity to the north. “It’s interesting, because it was my father who taught me to always be proud I’m an American.”

Her father was an “alien” smuggler, says the 48-year-old Orange County health department office worker. At an age when she was too young to know better, she helped some of his “clients” by translating as they tried to obtain documents or secure living quarters. She says she regrets it, and now Moreno, like a surprisingly large slice of U.S.-born Latinos, expresses concern about the never-ending flow of illegal immigration to America. Last summer, a Pew Hispanic Center survey found that 34 percent of native-born Latinos consider undocumented immigrants as hurtful to the U.S. economy. “There are no issues—none—on which Hispanics are unanimous,” says Robert Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “On this point there’s a clear majority, but there is a significant minority, particularly among the native born and the older, middle class, that expresses negative views about the undocumented.”

That key finding in the Pew survey shouldn’t be a surprise here in California, where exit polls suggested as much as 23 percent of the state’s voting Latinos supported Proposition 187, which would have denied education and state services to illegal immigrants had it not been knocked down by the courts after its passage in 1994. The Pew numbers parallel the 2003 recall election, when as much as one-third of the state’s Latino voters helped elect Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A few activists, like Moreno, have joined forces with anti-illegal-immigrant groups in their armed displays along the U.S.-Mexico border. (The California Minutemen split from the larger Minuteman Project late last year and changed their name to the California Border Watch, citing philosophical differences.) Many other native-born Latinos, who wouldn’t be caught dead hanging around with groups such as the Minutemen, believe that a system that allows undocumented immigrants to work for illegally low wages without protection under the law is inhumane and must be fixed with tighter border controls and employer sanctions.

“There are arguments that for Latinos to turn on immigrants, particularly the undocumented, is self-defeating and a betrayal,” says David Ayón, senior research associate at Loyola Marymount University’s Center for the Study of Los Angeles. It’s a sentiment that explains why so few Latinos who are anti-immigration are willing to be out front on the issue. And why those who align themselves with white-dominated anti-immigration groups face particularly harsh treatment. Their critics point to the Save Our State organization (a descendent of Prop. 187)—which has decried an “illegal alien invasion” and a state being “turned into a Third World cesspool” by undocumented migrants—as proof that the anti-illegal-immigrant side is racist. Enrique Morones, a former vice president of the San Diego Padres who founded the immigrant-aid group Border Angels, calls people like Moreno “puppets” of a “racist” movement. “These are people without a backbone,” he says.

California state Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who is behind a years-long effort to allow undocumented immigrants to obtain California driver’s licenses, agrees. “In some respects,” the legislator says, “they’re dupes of the extremists and shock-jock radio.” But Cedillo may be overstating the case: according to the Pew survey, 60 percent of native-born Latinos are opposed to giving driver’s licenses to the undocumented.

The history, circumstances, and effects of illegal immigration are all familiar. For decades, Mexico has needed a relief valve for its poorest citizens. For just as long, the United States has needed cheap labor on farms and, more recently, in its cities. The federal government has been unable to come up with a policy to please everyone. President George W. Bush recently revived a plan to create a guest-worker program and to beef up border security, but it is uncertain whether he can get support from Congress.

California remains ground zero for the debate. The state is home to 9 million immigrants, the majority from Mexico and other Latin American countries, including more than 2 million who are here illegally. Southern California is expected to grow by 6 million people—to 22.6 million—in the next 20 years.

A majority of that growth is likely to come from immigrants—legal and illegal—and their U.S.-born children. Doomsayers and government planners alike warn about the effects of immigration on virtually every aspect of life—schools, traffic, water. “If we don’t plan for it, it will overwhelm us,” says Jack Kyser, chief economist at the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation. “We know we have a housing, health care, and transportation challenge. But we’re not very good at acknowledging the reality that this growth is happening. This is such an emotional issue—almost a third rail for politicians.”

In coverage of the cyclical fervor over the undocumented, most accounts paint a metaphorical boxing ring with entrenched white cowboys in one corner and, in the other, liberals and Latinos who say undocumented immigrants add sweat equity to the nation. But the argument isn’t as simple as brown-against-white and hasn’t been for some time. Dating back to the 1950s, organizations such as the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and the Mexican- American veterans’ group known as the American G.I. Forum stood for a less porous border, arguing that illegal immigration hampers the process of assimilation of Latinos in American society. The G.I. Forum even supported “Operation Wetback,” a 1954 sweep by federal agents that saw many U.S.-born Latinos mistakenly deported. César Chávez and his United Farm Workers once supported limits on Mexican immigration, maintaining that the endless flow of undocumented workers often undermined their efforts to unionize and gain fair wages in the fields.

But the 1960s and ’70s brought a backlash to overzealous federal immigration enforcement—when anyone with brown skin and Latino features could be locked up as a suspected illegal—and spawned a growing social consciousness that fueled the Chicano movement and an embrace of undocumented immigrants. Discrimination was seen as anti-brown—period. And “illegals” were referred to as brethren.

This lockstep support of illegal immigrants among most Latino leaders continues to this day, despite a sizable minority of their Latino constituents who feel otherwise. After September 11, however, many Latino leaders and organizations have switched to support increased border security, or at least stayed ambivalent, leaving an opening for anti-illegal-immigrant Latinos to show their stripes without being shouted down so hard. “That was their foot in the door,” Ayón says. “The Latinos who want to express opposition to illegal immigration have done so on border enforcement.”

Alexandria Coronado is president of the Orange County Board of Education. In 2004, she unsuccessfully challenged U.S. Rep. Loretta Sanchez for the latter’s Garden Grove-based seat. A piano teacher by trade with a home studio in Cypress, the 37-year-old Coronado is active in the Republican Party, a family trait. Coronado’s multigenerational, two-story home has Rush Limbaugh playing on the radio and a photo of family members with President Bush proudly displayed. She has spoken out on behalf of the California Border Police Initiative, which, if it gets on the ballot in June, would establish a state border force.

Coronado argues that illegal immigrants burden government services, particularly education. As a then-trustee at the majority-Latino Anaheim Union High School District, she voted to get a 1999 school board plan rolling that would have sent Mexico a $50 million tab for the cost of educating local illegal immigrant children, although she later backed away from the plan. She coauthored an alternative resolution that instead asked the U.S. government to pay for the district’s schooling of illegal pupils. Coronado says she’s “not on the same page” as the Minutemen, some of whom she fears are racist. She says she’s concerned for immigrants’ welfare more than anything. “I think illegal immigration needs to be stopped because these immigrants are taken advantage of—not being paid proper wages—and I have a real problem with that. I don’t want these people exploited anymore. It’s ridiculous.”

For all her Republican activism, Coronado maintains this issue has centrist values that will attract Latinos in the same way many of them changed their attitudes about bilingual education. “The pendulum on any issue swings from way left to way right and back to the middle,” she argues. “I think there are more Hispanic people out there that think like I do.”

Gabriel’s Barber Shop near downtown San Diego’s Civic Center is home to a collection of four vintage barber chairs, a framed copy of a Jasper Johns American flag painting, and more than a dozen baseball caps, mostly emblazoned with the names of naval vessels and the local baseball team. Gabriel Pollack, 58, speaks Spanish to a woman trying to park out front, telling her how to turn her wheels along the downhill street. A young woman from the coffee shop next door brings Pollack day-old bread so he can drop it off at a homeless shelter on the way home. And at quitting time, everyone who strolls in front of his massive front window waves and says, “Bye, Gabriel.”

Pollack (his surname is derived from his Sephardic Jewish ancestry) is one of those Latinos who have changed their tune on immigration. Born in Albuquerque, New Mexico, he moved to Detroit as a young man and joined the Brown Berets, a militant Chicano-power group. He moved to San Diego at age 21 and became entrenched in the Chicano movement. In 1969, the newly opened Coronado Bay Bridge turned into a rallying point for Chicano activists, including Pollack, who successfully staged a takeover of land under the bridge that they wanted for a park in the junkyard-rich Barrio Logan. The parcel became the fabled mural-adorned Chicano Park, but Pollack soon soured on the movimiento. “There were too many chiefs and not enough Indians,” the silver-haired barber says in a raspy voice, in what he calls a New Mexican accent. “They were fighting more with themselves than others.

“The thing that got me was when they started bringing the Mexican flag in,” Pollack says of ’70s-era Chicano protesters. “Having a movement in our country, it was for the American Hispanics. When they started to switch from that concept to the idea that Chicanos are Mexican, that was wrong. We’re Americans, and our flag is red, white, and blue. Be proud of your heritage. My uncle was the first Hispanic fighter pilot in World War II. I just found out that my brother joined the Minutemen. He’s ex-air force, baby.”

These days, Pollack’s tattoos from his Chicano-power days, including two on his forearms, are clouded over with new ink. He is married and has two daughters, three grandchildren, and a home in the semirural community of Lakeside. He’s proud of his heritage and is prone to saying that his roots “go back to New Mexico during a time when they had signs at restrooms that said ‘Browns Around Back.’ ” Last year he found a new movement that made sense to him.

“I researched the Minutemen, and I thought, ‘These are people I want to belong with,’ ” says Pollack, adding that he’s concerned about working conditions for his fellow man in the fields of the Central Valley, and he wants to stop it at the border. “You want to talk about slavery,” he says. “They are working people to death out there.”

When he’s not holding court in his shop, Pollack takes his one day off a week to volunteer at the Border Watch post near Campo. There’s a certain camaraderie among the 20 or so folks, mostly retired men, who camp out under the deep skies on America’s edge, using night-vision goggles to see nothing as the mercury drops and as nary a soul approaches from the south.

“One night,” Pollack says, “I started speaking Spanish on the radio frequency as a joke. Later they said, ‘Hey, some Mexican found our frequency.’ I said, ‘That’s me, man!’ ”

Like Pollack, fellow BorderWatch volunteer Lupe Moreno spends much of her free time protesting U.S. immigration policy, camping out at the border, debating immigrant defenders on Spanish-language television, and, recently, speaking to a gathering of anti-illegal-immigrant demonstrators in Sacramento. Some fellow Latinos call her a coconut—brown on the outside but white on the inside. Critics say she can’t deny her heritage, confronting her with the old saying, “Traes el nopal en la frente”—“You carry the cactus on your forehead”—meaning that her Mexican identity is obvious. She responds, “I might be brown ... but that’s an American cactus in front.”

Story was edited for length.

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