Rachel Uranga, Los Angeles Daily News, August 12, 2006
Retired utility worker Charles Warren worries his quality of life is slipping and says that illegal immigrants are to blame.
The 55-year-old retiree complains about day laborers waiting for work outside the nearby Home Depot, saying they give his neighborhood “a Third World look.”
“Ten or 15 years ago, the neighborhood wasn’t like this,” Warren said. “The states are overpopulated, there is oversprawl, and immigration is contributing to this.”
After seeing a television commercial that blamed many of California’s woes on illegal immigrants, Warren immediately donated $50 to the sponsoring group, Californians for Population Stabilization.
And he’s not the only one. Since the Santa Barbara-based group aired the commercials, it has collected thousands of membership applications.
Other anti-illegal-immigrant groups have watched their rolls and coffers swell, from California to New York. Most of the organizations are small affairs, started by one or two people, such as California Coalition for Immigration Reform or Save Our State.
Other groups, such as CAPS or Numbers USA, which center on population control, provide statistical data and research-oriented services.
But anti-illegal-immigrant groups say growing interest is a wider backlash against pro-immigrant street protests that swept the country last spring and frustration with federal officials whose immigration-reform bill has stalled.
Critics warn that the upsurge in activity – also being replicated among pro-immigrant groups – is evidence of a growing anti-illegal-immigrant sentiment sweeping the United States.
They say the rhetoric used by those border restrictionists, such as the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps and CAPS, teeters on alarmism rather than focusing on the country’s broken border system. And, they fear, it is dangerously fanning the flames of hate.
“We are in the midst of an anti-immigrant wave that periodically affects California, whether it be the 1880s with the anti-Chinese immigrant stance, the 1950s with Operation Wetback or in the 1970s in California when we used to see headlines with thousands of aliens crossing into California all the time,” said Harry Pachon, president of the Tomas Rivera Policy Institute, a think tank that focuses on Latino issues.
One group, the Arizona-based Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, a civilian volunteer group patrolling the border, says it has collected $600,000 for a proposed border fence.
The American Border Patrol, another civilian group that turns immigrants crossing the U.S. Mexican border over to authorities and is considered a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, says donations are up 25 percent.
And in San Diego, a newly formed Minuteman group went from just two members late last year to 200 today.
“People are joining us so fast because they are frustrated with our government,” said Jeff Schwilk, the group’s founder. “They see all the wrangling, all the political posturing, and I think people are fed up with the inaction of their government.”
“We know the anti-immigration movement is exploding, that there are certainly more and more organizations and chapters of organizations of chapters being developed all the time,” said Heidi Beirich, deputy director for the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project, which tracks hate and anti-immigrant groups.
The danger comes when they focus attention on one ethnic group like Mexicans, who make up about half of all illegal immigrants in the United States, she said.
“What a lot of these organizations do is … defaming a group of people, like they bring disease, they are terrorist, they are criminals, they are trashing the environment. Anytime you defame a group of people incessantly, you make that group ripe for discrimination,” Beirich said.
But supporters of these groups say they feel especially compelled to join after seeing the level of support among immigrant sympathizers.
Bob Byrd, a 68-year-old real estate broker who recently joined California Coalition for Immigration Reform, a Huntington Beach-based group, said he was simply “repulsed” watching immigrants and their supporters carrying signs in Spanish through downtown streets.
The images fueled his own anger over a recent family experience at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center. Sitting for hours in the emergency room, waiting for his ill son to be seen by a doctor, all the while surrounded by patients who spoke almost exclusively Spanish.
“Our country is in jeopardy, and there is something that should be done about this. We have to pay for other people’s welfare who shouldn’t be here in the first place,” he said, his voice rising.
“I am not prejudiced; I want everyone to have equal rights, but I see more and more our language is being changed.
“Things that were written in English are written in Spanish now. You buy chlorine and acid for the swimming pool and it’s in Spanish and English now.”
Listed as a hate group by Southern Poverty Law Center, CCIR counts 26,000 members who support their promise to fight “the illegal alien invasion.”
Diana Hull, president of Californians for Population Stabilization, believes that the high-octane debate reflects the dire situation.
In the low-budget CAPS commercial that motivated union member and Sacramento Democrat Warren to join, swarms of pro-immigrant protesters wave the Mexican flag. A voice-over comes on:
“The last thing California needs is more traffic, crowded schools, bankrupt hospitals. The last thing California needs is more immigration. The other side has had its say. Isn’t it time you had yours?”
The commercial targeted the thousands of residents whom Hull believes were incensed by the immigrant protests, which she says is further evidence of plans for a “reconquista” or reconquering of California by Latinos seeking land lost during the Mexican-American war.
Moreover, she and other groups pushing for tighter borders say the real race-baiters are immigrant advocacy groups like National Council of La Raza, which she says solely serves one ethnic group.
“There’s this whole perception being perpetuated about the Minutemen and others, that they … are beer drinking, swilling red necks.
“They are incorrectly and maliciously portrayed. It’s not true. One of our board members is a Minuteman and he is a Ph.D., a professor. It’s a smear campaign.”
But, the fever-pitch debate has taken such a turn that even in the halls of Congress, accusations of discrimination have spilled over into legislation. Last month U.S. Rep. Ruben Hinojosa, D-Texas, accused other members of Congress of fanning the flames of “anti-immigrant sentiment before the election” by supporting legislation that makes English the official language.
And this past week, state Republican lawmakers formed a task force against illegal immigration that will host town hall meetings and gather information on the cost of illegal immigration.
Assembly members such as Chuck DeVore, R-Irvine, who led the boycott of Mexican President Vicente Fox’s speech before the state Legislature, are leading the charge.
But the intense focus on Latino immigrants, particularly Mexicans, has some worried about fear and anger being stoked in California, home to 2.1 illegal immigrants.
“It’s a simple message that immigrants equal problems, but the reality is that problems are caused by several factors, not just immigrants,” Pachon said.
“The slippery slope is making the immigrants the primary cause of California’s problem. You split California society into us-versus-them and the us is not responsible. The them (or immigrants) is the one that overcrowd our schools and tax our freeways and make us move further and further out.”