VISTA—With rallies outside City Hall, Minutemen and pro-immigrant activists squaring off on street corners and teens hurling rocks at deputies in riot gear, this city of about 90,000 residents has caught more than its share of media attention in recent months.
It has become a flash point for a heated countywide, even national, debate on immigration.
And in the neighborhoods beyond the well-publicized street corners, after the news cameras are packed up, people who call Vista home—parents, activists, city leaders and day laborers, whose presence has attracted so much attention,—say the increasing tension is affecting the city in different ways.
“More than anything, I’m scared to come to the park,” said Maria Hernandez, 58, who looked after her two young grandchildren at Raintree Park on Wednesday. “But kids get restless at home and they don’t understand.”
Much of the tension in Vista revolves around day laborers who stand on corners looking for work and the groups trying to shut their gathering spots down.
Mike Spencer, a Vista resident who helped found one of the anti-illegal immigrant groups, said he is concerned about the high levels of uncontrolled immigration into the country and into Vista. His group, the Vista Citizens Brigade, routinely spies on employers looking to hire day laborers at the corner of South Santa Fe and Escondido avenues.
“I soon won’t be able to communicate in the language that the Constitution was written in,” Spencer said.
Day laborers who gather on the corner said last week that work offers have dropped dramatically due to the anti-illegal immigration activists, who they say are racially motivated.
“They are nothing but racists who don’t want us on the corner,” said Jose Nieto, a 71-year-old day laborer who said he is a legal resident. “There is no work right now, and this is a time when there should be a lot of work. There are people here who haven’t worked in 15 days.”
Members of groups of pro-immigrant activists, including the Coalition for Justice, Peace and Dignity, regularly stand by day laborers videotaping and photographing their opponents. The clash prompted city leaders into action.
On Tuesday, the Vista City Council voted to adopt a law that requires employers to register with the city before hiring day laborers. Council members said the law, which anti-illegal immigrants support, aims to curb abuses against day laborers—including employers who skip out on workers without paying them.
Council members reject criticisms from Latinos that the law is biased against Latino workers.
“The ordinance is not about race,” said Councilman Frank Lopez. “It’s to protect the day laborers in this community.”
Pro-immigrant advocates say the new law, which was drafted by City Attorney Darold Pieper without prior public input, is a thinly veiled attempt to remove the day workers.
“Everyone but the city attorney seems to know what this is really about,” said Claudia Smith, a longtime immigrant rights activist.
The day labor law comes in the midst of a national debate on immigration. Congressional leaders plan a series of hearings in the coming weeks in San Diego and throughout the country on proposed immigration reform plans.
Leaders in the U.S. House and Senate are at loggerheads over widely differing legislation. The House measure strongly favors tough enforcement efforts, while the Senate would provide a guest-worker program.
In Vista, Tina Jillings, who heads the Coalition of Justice, Peace and Dignity, said the city’s day labor law also comes on the heels of increasing cooperation between local law enforcement and immigration enforcement agents that are creating a sense of fear and uncertainty among illegal immigrants in the community.
Sheriff’s Department Lt. Hernando Torres said his department is accused by both pro-immigrant and anti-immigrant groups of being in cahoots with the other side. He said his deputies are expected to enforce the law without prejudice toward anyone.
“My personal beliefs stay at home,” Torres said in his office where music in Spanish sometimes plays softly in the background. “Once we put our uniform on, we don’t take sides.”