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Day 1: San Diego

Bienvenidos to the border
Papers paranoia
Home Depot despots

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Bienvenidos to the border

NATIONAL BORDERS are both real and artificial.

Along its border with Mexico, the U.S. has built walls, installed electronic sensors, stationed National Guard troops and financed a small army of Border Patrol agents who patrol la línea 24/7. These physical reinforcements give the border an imposing presence in the lives of everyone who lives near it.

But in San Diego, where conversations between friends move easily between Spanish and English, where the music drifting through the streets changes from the polka norteño beat to bass-thumping hip hop, where taquerías and burger joints compete for attention on every street corner, everyday life mocks the border. Commerce, culture and people spill over it in every direction.

At any time of the day or night, a line of cars and people waits to cross from Tijuana into the U.S.

Countless motivations send people from one side to the other. There are U.S. citizens of Mexican descent returning home to the U.S. after visiting family members on the other side, there are Americans whose work takes them across the border, there are Mexicans with one-day shopping visas, Americans in search of affordable dental work, and on and on.

Of the 500 million people officially admitted to the U.S. each year, 60 percent enter by crossing the U.S.-Mexico border. Every year, about 90 million cars and 4.3 million trucks cross. Every day, about $683 million in trade is conducted along the U.S.-Mexico border.

At the San Diego-Tijuana crossing along, some 14 million people enter the U.S. annually--an astonishing number considered alongside San Diego's population of 1.2 million.

Tomorrow, Justin, Nohelia and I will drive east along the border--through the towns of Tucson, Nogales, Sasabe and Douglas in Arizona; reach El Paso/Ciudad Juarez for two days; and then head back to San Diego and spend some time in Tijuana and among farm workers in north San Diego County.

Tonight, I'm going with Nohelia to the weekly immigrant rights coalition meeting in San Diego, but first I drop Nohelia off to do some door-to-door canvassing in City Heights, a predominantly Latino neighborhood on San Diego's north side.

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Papers paranoia

AS WE pull up, Eric notices six cop cars in the space of a few blocks. Yes, I explain, they're everywhere in this neighborhood. They set up checkpoints to ask people for their papers.

Since May 1, the San Diego Police Department (SDPD) has increased its presence in this multicultural community. The local office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) reports that police are setting up checkpoints to interrogate drivers randomly.

Failure to present a driver's license is grounds for an immediate citation, but simply carrying a driver's license may not be sufficient to avoid the heat. The AFSC notes that citations from the SDPD are cross-referenced with the federal government's immigration enforcement database when a person's record shows repeated offenses due to citations from illegal crossings.

The events of 9/11 legitimized this form of racial profiling to include immigrants. But this is also a backlash against this spring's immigrant rights protests--aimed at intimidating, criminalizing and frightening immigrant communities into submission.

The debate over whether and how to crack down on undocumented workers is sharpening in cities and towns across Southern California. Historically, municipalities have allowed their police departments to cooperate with the INS (which, since it has come under the Department of Homeland Security, is now known as Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE).

The constant fear that you may be confronted by police demanding proof of citizenship produces a sort of "papers paranoia" in the community. Either you have it or you don't, and if you do, you must carry it with you at all times.

It is hard enough to have to face interrogations at border crossings or when confronted by police, but with the passage of anti-immigrant local laws, more and more Latinos are confronted more and more frequently with the demand for proof of citizenship.

In Escondido, Calif., a new law will fine landlords a $1,000 per day per occupant for renting apartments to undocumented immigrants--meaning that landlords not only can, but must, demand citizenship papers before renting to Latinos.

But there are also local communities moving in the opposite direction. The mayor of National City recently announced that he wants to declare this town in the southern part of metropolitan San Diego a "sanctuary city"--meaning that city funds will not be used to enforce federal immigration laws.

Sí Se Puede--San Diego's citywide immigrant rights coalition--is gathering signatures in support of the National City mayoral initiative with hopes of launching a similar campaign in San Diego.

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Home Depot despots

IT'S ONE of the countless clear cool evenings that descend on San Diego year-round, and Nohelia and I are walking into a small art gallery where Sí Se Puede meets.

Most of the meeting deals with the sanctuary city campaign and the details of an upcoming forum. But sandwiched between all the organizational decisions is an item that brought smiles to the faces of everyone in the room.

Joaquin explains that the San Diego police yesterday arrested one of several Minutemen who was harassing day laborers at the Home Depot at Fairmont-Mission Gorge--a welcome reversal for those who usually bear the brunt of police harassment.

The Minuteman began by harassing an activist, calling her "fat," then repeatedly shoved her and told her she should go to a "fat farm." The bigot also lashed out at other activists with epithets such as "beaner supporters."

The cops told the Minuteman to back off several times. Then an African American couple drove up, and the Minuteman began harassing them, apparently thinking that they were there to hire day laborers.

When an altercation broke out, the police finally stepped in to arrest the Minuteman--but incredibly (or perhaps not so incredibly), they also cited the African American guy.

The other Minutemen, not at all accustomed to police arresting a fellow bigot, were so stunned that they began shrieking about the arrogance of the "communist cops" arresting their compatriot.

The smiles at the meeting were more than just satisfaction at a Minuteman getting his comeuppance. There was palpable hope that maybe, just maybe, this arrest would alter the usual pattern of abuse--perhaps forcing some doubt into the heads of the Minutemen, sapping their confidence just a little bit, and therefore easing the lives of the day laborers by just that much.

In an e-mail, Gail Perez, a professor at the University of San Diego, described the typical scene outside the Home Depot: "If anyone would like to see what it was like in Mississippi or Greensboro, N.C., in 1960, they should volunteer as human rights observers at a Home Depot...[to monitor] the obscene display of racial hatred put on by the Minutemen...

"There you can experience a flag-carrying patriot scream obscenities in your face and watch these same 'heroes' deprive the most vulnerable of people--day laborers--from making enough money to eat.

"It really is just like the '60s. You can watch the Minutemen chat up the police and the armed guards from Home Depot, and watch as they do nothing to make these people refrain from chasing cars and potential employers all over this 'private property' parking lot. If you are a human rights observer, though, you will be relegated to a distant strip of sidewalk.

"While this circus seems to be a sideshow to the immigration policy debate, it should be remembered that this race-baiting and harassment is preventing many, many workers from getting work. As one man said, 'We don't work, we don't eat.' In addition, the Minutemen were screaming threats at ANY car that drove by and that they perceived to be driven by an 'illegal'--in other words, anyone who appeared to be Latino...

"Our communities should take a coordinated stand against the despicable behavior I witnessed. The level of cowardice of these people who attack the most vulnerable people in the city is truly horrible. Let us be silent no longer."

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