Temecula immigration rights activist Ray Navarro stands outside Temecula City Hall at a rally two weeks ago.
Many California city governments, including Los Angeles’, are boycotting Arizona over its new immigration law which was set to take effect this week. A judge has temporarily blocked the more controversial aspects of the law from going into effect. But several Inland Empire cities not only show unwavering support of that law – they’re crafting strict new immigration policies of their own. It’s part of a wave of anti-illegal immigration sentiment sweeping the Temecula Valley.
Surrounded by a boisterous group of supporters outside Temecula City Hall, Shellie Milne grips a bullhorn and aims it at a small group of immigration rights activists, most of whom are Latino.
“Go back from where you came if you don’t wanna follow the rules! And you know what,” bellows Milne, to affirmative shouts of “yeah!” and “Amen!” “We have an undocumented worker in the White House and we need to get him out..!”
Milne, a married working mom with six kids, heads a Temecula-area chapter of the Tea Party movement.
In the past two months, the group has successfully pressured cities in this staunchly conservative semi-rural valley east of Orange County to adopt, or consider, a raft of anti-illegal immigrant policies. It has pushed everything from symbolic resolutions supporting Arizona’s tough new immigration reform, to strict ordinances requiring employers to verify the immigration status of all new workers through the free federal E-Verify system.
“It’s really to protect the people, those that are here legally," said Milne, decked out in a “Martin Luther King Jr. was a Republican” T-shirt. "And so it’s holding the employer to a higher accountability and it’s a free service.
“You hire somebody on their merits, run their stuff through, it comes back 'yes,' 'no' or whatever, you staple that to their hiring packet and away you go.”
In the last six weeks, three cities in the region unanimously adopted E-Verify ordinances. Employers that don’t comply could be fined and lose their business licenses.
“We’re not trying to be that stringent on people, we’re giving them the benefit of the doubt,” said Daryl Hickman, a councilman in Lake Elsinore – a city that has morphed in recent years from a sleepy little retirement community into a fast growing middle class enclave with lots of new homes, and lots of new Latino residents.
Last month it became just the third city in California to adopt an E-Verify ordinance. An action promoted by Hickman.
“It (illegal immigration) infuriated me, so in due time I brought it up,” he said.
Sitting in the patio of his lake view home, Hickman fumes over what he says is an “invasion.” In 2008, when he was mayor, Hickman pressured local Congressional representatives to call on federal immigration authorities to step up immigration sweeps in the region. More than 200 alleged illegal immigrants were detained or deported. A part-time school teacher, Hickman said he sees the impact of illegal immigration in local classrooms.
“You just see the kids coming in and, I’m gonna tell ya out of a class you have maybe three whites and the rest are Latinos," Hickman said. "And the parents can’t speak English, they’re all drawing welfare."
When pressed for verification he gives anecdotal evidence.
“I’d say because none of them would come if they didn’t have a free meal or something and so, um…” Hickman pauses. “I can’t say all of them. The majority, let’s put it that way.”
The claim could not be verified.
What is certain is that legal and illegal Latino immigrants have settled in the Temecula Valley for years, drawn in part by low-paying but plentiful work in a fertile wine country and booming construction trade.
But as the economy soured, so too did many people’s tolerance for undocumented workers. The anger now boils over regularly at city council meetings and rallies like this one in Temecula a couple of weeks ago featuring Victorville Minuteman Raymond Herrera, who’s renowned for his inflammatory anti-Latino rhetoric and dubious conspiracy theories that link virtually all illegal immigrants to drug cartels.
“This is your country, YOUR democracy, and they’re third world peasants that are gonna pack it up and go!” shouts Herrera.
Lake Elsinore pre-school teacher Laura Melendez took part in a counter protest that day.
“Oh my goodness, it makes me very sad because we all started from down here,” said Melendez. “They (undocumented workers) are working because they need to, and they are willing to die for their family.”
Melendez was born in the U.S. - to parents who came here illegally from Mexico. Her husband is an undocumented construction worker. He came three years ago, before the couple met. He was deported during the 2008 immigration sweeps in Lake Elsinore, but returned shortly after.
”Because in Mexico things are real difficult too, he couldn’t work," said Melendez. "Work stopped because people stopped sending money form here over there.”
Others worry the newly adopted E-Verify ordinances will exacerbate economic woes here, in a region mired in double-digit unemployment. Businesses could be wiped out, and more undocumented workers driven into an underground economy where income taxes go unpaid.
Carlos Batara says most cities don’t even money to enforce the ordinances. Batara is an immigration attorney in Hemet, a city considering its own E-Verify measure.
“There was discussion about closing the library down because they don’t have the funds,” said Batara. “So at a time like this when there is not enough money for public services, why would you impose a burden like this on a city? The cities that are supporting E-Verify in Southwest Riverside County are moving the wrong direction because their budgets are tight too.”
The increased scrutiny of undocumented immigrants is worrying Laura Melendez and her husband. Melendez says he rarely leaves home, except to go to work. Melendez says he talks more and more of going back to Mexico - and taking his American born family with him.
"And I’m like; wait! Something will happen. I’m an American citizen, I’m entitled to stay I don’t wanna go,” said Melendez. “And he’s like; well for me there’s no chance to stay here. I know (I tell him), but I need you here.”
The E-Verify ordinances embraced in the Temecula Valley may end up having minimal impact on the local economy. But the policies could compel many undocumented people like the husband of Laura Melendez to move away for good. And that’s one impact anti-illegal immigrant activists in this region would welcome.
You can read the full ordinance below: