Escondido Tries to Rid Itself of Undocumented Immigrants

Anna Gorman, Los Angeles Times, July 13, 2008

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Now Escondido is trying a new approach to what it calls the “public nuisances” of illegal immigration, citing residents for code violations such as garage conversions, graffiti and junk cars.

The city is also debating a new ordinance that would restrict overnight street parking without a permit. In addition, it is drafting a policy that would prohibit drivers from picking up day laborers along some streets.

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Like many city leaders frustrated with the federal government, Escondido officials said they were taking immigration enforcement into their own hands. They said they were fighting the perception that Escondido, a city in affluent northern San Diego County with a burgeoning Latino population, has become a destination for illegal immigrants.

Councilman Ed Gallo said he regularly receives complaints from Escondido residents about illegal immigrants crowding schools, hospitals and neighborhoods.

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Police Chief Jim Maher said his department conducted two “criminal alien” sweeps this year. Officers identified illegal immigrants with criminal records who had been deported but then returned. In two separate sweeps, Escondido police arrested 31 illegal immigrants and turned them over to federal authorities for possible deportation.

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Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokeswoman Lauren Mack said the police department sweeps were a “unique enforcement approach” because the officers acted largely on their own.

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The police department’s most controversial move, however, was establishing checkpoints to find unlicensed drivers. Last year, the department set up 18 license checkpoints, resulting in 293 impounded cars, 14 arrests and 296 citations. Maher said those checkpoints helped officers find at least 290 unlicensed drivers and helped reduce the city’s number of hit-and-run crashes.

“Some folks say they are controversial because they target a specific segment of the population,” he said. “That is absolutely not true. Our checkpoints are for one reason and one reason only: traffic safety.”

Escondido officers ask about immigration status only if the drivers do not have licenses. Illegal immigrants are not eligible to obtain driver’s licenses in California. In the last six months of 2007, officers identified six illegal immigrants and referred them to federal authorities.

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The following sentence appeared in the original version, but was removed before the resolution passed: “Illegal immigration leads to higher crime rates, contributes to overcrowded classrooms and failing schools, subjects our hospitals to fiscal hardship and legal residents to substandard quality of care, and destroys our neighborhoods and diminishes our overall quality of life.”

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The city’s policies have also attracted criticism from some residents who said the city is blurring distinctions between illegal immigrants and Latinos here legally.

“It’s not about immigration,” said resident Bill Flores, spokesman for a community organization called El Grupo. “It is about brown people. . . . They are looking for a way to reduce the number of brown people.”

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More than 62,000 Latinos lived in Escondido in 2006, making up 44% of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That marks a significant jump since 1990, when roughly 25,000 Latinos lived in the city and were 23% of the population. The non-Latino white population, meanwhile, dropped between 1990 and 2000 by nearly 11%.

The elementary school district’s demographics have also shifted. Latinos made up 48% of the student body in the 1997-98 school year and 65% in 2007-08, according to the California Department of Education.

Cornelius, of UC San Diego, said Escondido is a hotbed of anti-immigration activity in part because its population is largely conservative and in part because it has been a destination for immigrants—both legal and undocumented—looking for work.

The city is trying to make illegal immigrants’ lives so uncomfortable that they will go away, he said.

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Immigrants say the city’s hostility toward them makes it difficult to live in Escondido. The proposed parking ordinance, for example, is meant to discourage multiple families from sharing a single home, Councilman Gallo said.

Lucina Carachure, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, lives in a neighborhood littered with trash and full of boarded-up apartment buildings. On her husband’s monthly income of $1,800, Carachure said, the family of five cannot afford to live alone.

So they share a two-bedroom apartment with another couple and their baby. Together, they pay $1,000 in rent.

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