Henri Brickey and Elizabeth Brotherton, Press-Enterprise (Cal.), August 14, 2004
People supporting continuing sweeps for undocumented immigrants heckled, booed and demanded answers from a top federal immigration official Friday in Temecula.
More than 1,000 people came to the town-hall meeting from as far away as Arizona to hear why the Border Patrol stopped making sweeps of undocumented immigrants in Southern California and whether the sweeps would resume.
Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Vista, called the meeting so officials could explain what had happened to the sweeps, but many people left more frustrated than when they had arrived. They said Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security, and Issa never adequately answered why the Inland sweeps were halted and what has to happen to get them started again.
“People want to see action, not just lip service,” said former Lake Elsinore Mayor Kevin Pape, who was among the overflow crowd outside the packed auditorium at Margarita Middle School.
Hutchinson defended the use of the Border Patrol.
“Our operations to enforce the immigration laws have not been halted, they have not been stopped, they have not been intimidated,” he said.
During two weekends in June, a 12-member Border Patrol team apprehended more than 400 undocumented immigrants in the Inland Empire in what many people are calling sweeps or mobile patrols.
A public outcry followed. More than 1,500 people marched from Ontario to Pomona in protest. Mexico’s consul in San Bernardino said his office would be investigating allegations of racial profiling. Several of the protesters said the sweeps had created a climate of fear in the Latino community.
The sweeps have since been suspended, according to Border Patrol agents. Hutchinson has said that the sweeps were not authorized by the proper authorities.
Opponents skip meeting
No one protested the sweeps at Friday’s event. Organizers opposed to the sweeps said earlier this week that attending the meeting would be a waste of time. Armando Navarro, a UC Riverside professor and member of the National Alliance for Human Rights, earlier in the week describe the meeting as a “propaganda show put on by Congress.”
Nearly two hours into the meeting, an increasingly agitated crowd erupted in cheers when radio talk-show host John Kobylt from KFI-AM 640’s “John and Ken Show,” which had been calling on listeners to attend, stood and demanded that Hutchinson explain what would prompt further Border Patrol sweeps.
“What was the criteria for those sweeps? What was the intelligence?” Kobylt said.
Unknown to most people, the patrol unit that conducted the sweeps is still operational, Hutchinson said.
“Any time we have reasonable suspicion, we can act on that,” he said. “What we are not going to do is cause people who are legally here in this country to live in fear because of racial profiling. We do not indiscriminately round up people.”
Throughout the two-hour meeting, members of the audience verbally assaulted Hutchinson and Issa.
“Put the military on the border,” “Stop lying!” and “Arrest and fine the people who hire them,” people yelled from their seats.
Issa intervened several times to try to calm the crowd. The audience further scolded the congressman when he asked for order and said he was in control of the microphone because he had paid for the meeting.
Christine Bevilacqua of Fallbrook carried a broom into the meeting to show she wanted to “bring the sweeps back.”
“Our economy is being completely drained by illegal immigration,” said Bevilacqua, 32, a stay-at-home mother with six kids.
Border Patrol agents attending Friday’s meeting said they weren’t convinced that the administration is doing everything it can to stem the surge of undocumented immigrants into the United States.
“They’re dodging the questions,” said Christopher Bauder, executive vice president of the San Diego chapter of the National Border Patrol Council, a union of Border Patrol agents. “Their answers make the public believe we’re doing our job when we really aren’t.”
T.J. Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, told Hutchinson during the meeting that many agents are stuck watching a line on the border when they should be out patrolling and doing interior enforcement.
“Why don’t you let us do our jobs?” Bonner asked Hutchinson.
Hutchinson replied that arresting undocumented immigrants in areas away from the border is now the job of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which he said has apprehended 42,000 undocumented immigrants since the agency formed in March 2003.
Bill Ponzi, 57, drove from Yuma, Ariz., to attend Friday’s meeting.
“The illegal-immigration problem has become so frustrating,” said Ponzi, a retired Navy veteran. “They inundate the system.”
Unless something is done to slow illegal immigration by election time, Ponzi said he will vote for a Democrat as president for the first time in his life to protest the Republican administration’s failure to take action.
Some turned away
A vocal group of about 150 people barred from the auditorium because the room was full listened to the speeches on loudspeakers outside the building and around a KFI news van.
Many people, such as Menifee resident Tracy Thomas, expressed disappointment that they could not get inside but said they were pleased at the turnout.
Thomas said she drove through electrical storms — on her birthday — only to be turned away. But for Thomas — who was born in Canada and is trying to get American citizenship — it was important to stay.
“I get upset because I’m trying to do it legally,” she said. “It’s really hard on people who are trying to do it the right way.”
Activist Janice Gammill decided to stay outside so she could be loud. Gammill carried a sign that read, “Illegals: Bag ‘em, tag ‘em, deport ‘em,” and shouted, “Do your job,” when Hutchinson spoke.
“We’re turning into a third-world country,” Gammill said. “The word is getting out there. People are sick of it.”