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Sides clash over immigration

Anti-immigration sign sparks protests


Kevork Djansezian/Associated Press

Anti-illegal immigration protesters were separated from immigration supporters by a column of police Saturday in Blythe, Calif. Robert Cuesta (left) of West Los Angeles made himself heard.


By Ruben Navarrette Jr.
The Arizona Republic
June 28, 1998

BLYTHE, Calif. - Two sides of the immigration issue clashed in this small desert town Saturday as flag-waving protesters against illegal immigration vowed to resurrect a controversial billboard across the country.

The leased billboard, removed earlier this week from Interstate 10 at the California-Arizona border, proclaimed: "Welcome to California, the illegal immigration state. Don't let this happen to your state."

"These people are here to take over your country," warned Glenn Spencer, president of Voice of Citizens Together, a Southern California-based group supporting the billboard, speaking at a news conference earlier in the day.

The protesters, some of whom had traveled from as far as Maryland and Florida, said they would erect identical billboards in other states, including Arizona.

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At a highway overpass near the site where the sign had previously stood, the protesters held up what was intended to be a replica of the billboard.

Because of copying problems at a Kinko's shop in Southern California, which the group says sabotaged its efforts, only a portion of the message was displayed.

Many of the 50-odd protesters had left the scene by the time a handful of counterprotesters arrived. The few that remained taunted the sign's opponents, but more than three dozen police officers kept the peace. Nearly 20 officers formed a human barricade around the sign's opponents.

"Immigrants have the highest level of productivity," said Josie Montoya, a member of the Orange County, Calif., chapter of the League of United Latin American Citizens. "It's a myth that they're a drain on society."

The theme of many of those rallying against illegal immigration can be summed up in one word: invasion.

Spencer asserted that the Mexican government, aided by sympathetic Mexican-American leaders in the United States, were using immigration to orchestrate a reconquista (reconquering) of the former Mexican territory known as the American Southwest.

Barbra Coe, a leader of the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, which had leased the billboard, said, "Our message is: Wake up America! And protect yourself from the malignancy that is slowly but surely destroying its host."

Coe also singled out Mario Obledo, a Sacramento lawyer and veteran of the Hispanic civil rights movement.


"We're here to protest a terrorist act by someone who we believe to be an anti-American race activist," said Coe, referring to Obledo.

Obledo had called the sign "racist and divisive" and weeks ago promised to deface it and confront Coe and her group in Blythe on Saturday. But he never showed up.

Among those who did show up to protest the billboard was Rodolfo Pinon, who watched the events with his 12 year-old son.

"I'm giving my son a lesson in racism," Pinon said.

The billboard company, Martin Media of Paso Robles, Calif., removed the sign Tuesday. It had been up since May 7.

Martin representatives denied that they were taking sides in the dispute and said they were simply protecting their property.

They also denied that the removal was influenced by their recent acquisition by a much larger communications company in a multimillion-dollar buyout.

Coalition supporters defended the billboard and warned those in other states to heed its message.

SW,-20"The sign is factually correct," said Marshall Gilbert, a Palm Springs radio talk-show host. Gilbert said that, since the billboard controversy erupted, his listeners have wanted to talk about little else.SW

SW,0"It's saying: "We're a bunch of suckers, don't let this happen to you.' "SW

SW,-20Gilbert, broadcasting live from the protest, said that what concerned his listeners most was that Obledo's threat to deface the sign had interfered with free speech, which he said could have a ripple effect.SW

"If it happened here, then Arizona will be next."

Though many protesters came from California, some traveled much longer distances to rally in defense of the billboard.

"I thought this was an important thing to attend," said Sheldon Isaacs of Baltimore, who flew in for the protest after learning of the billboard and its removal.

"I support immigration but so many of the new immigrants are being taught to hate the country and becoming a burden on it."

But a few miles away, where 20 or so Hispanic activists debated whether to confront billboard supporters, some of them disagreed.

One insisted there was no difference between those immigrating to the United States today and past immigrants.

"We welcomed those on the Mayflower, and we fed them," said Jessica Castro, president of -LULAC's Orange County chapter. "They stayed and they multiplied.

"Immigration is a wonderful thing and something that the country was founded upon."

At day's end, as the California protesters boarded a charter bus headed back to the Los Angeles area, one offered some advice to his neighbors to the east.

SW,-20"Arizona seems unaffected by all this right now," said Tom Morpheu of San Pedro, Calif. Morpheu estimated that the number of illegal immigrants in California still far exceeds those in Arizona.SW "But if they get anywhere near the numbers that are in California, then the folks there had better know what they're getting into," he said.

***

Ruben Navarrette Jr. can be reached at 444-4977 or at ruben.navarrette@pni.com via e-mail.

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