By Mark R. Day
There was no pompous music at this graduation ceremony. No caps and gowns. Even the lighting in the backyard barrio home was a bit dodgy and improvised. But the faces of the graduates beamed with pride and accomplishment. Out of 33 who started, eleven persevered and got their certificates.
The course they passed was on human rights, put together by Tina Garcia Jillings and husband and wife team Ricardo Favela and Ysenia Balcazar of the Coalition for Peace, Justice and Dignity based in Vista.
What led up to the five week workshop was a raid in the Townsite area of Vista was a raid by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E.) on June 21. The military style operation, which began at 6 a.m. at a Citrus Street home, left four children traumatized and their neighbors stunned and in a state of shock.
During a neighborhood meeting a few days later, Townsite residents called upon the coalition to prepare them for further raids and what they considered malpractices by both immigration agents and Vista sheriff’s deputies.
The coalition owes its own origin to a series of police shootings in Vista that a left three young unarmed Latinos dead in July and August of 2005.
Community members were wondering what to do to protect their own young people who are increasingly being criminalized by unsympathetic city officials and heavy handed law enforcement officers.
Townsite is Vista’s poorest neighborhood, with high levels of unemployment and frequent harassment from law enforcement officials. Lately, the Sheriff’s Department has set up checkpoints, seizing vehicles and handing undocumented immigrants over to ICE officials.
“Young children have witnessed their parents being abused by the deputies,” said Garcia Jillings. “People are living in fear. Sometimes they can’t get their kids to school without running into a checkpoint.”
The course focused on immigrant’s rights with an emphasis on the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. This includes the right to remain silent when one is detained by law officers and the guarantee that everyone, regardless of legal status, cannot without due process be deprived of life, liberty, property or equal protection of the law.
“Most of these people weren’t convinced they had any rights until it was explained to them,” said Garcia Jillings. “We could see that some of them were stepping outside their own fears and are ready to make some changes.”
As part of the course, the Townsite residents learned how to document what they witness on a daily basis, especially cases of police misconduct. “One lady drew quite accurate images of what the instructor explained,” said workshop coordinator Ysenia Balcazar. “It was fascinating to watch.”
“People are really happy about the workshop,” said Silvia Ramos, a member of the Coalition for Peace, Justice and Dignity who helped coordinate the course. “They want to report what’s going on in their community and they want to see changes made. They are fed up with the discrimination and the abuses.”