Revolution #108, November 11, 2007


“Qualcomm Reminded Me of Katrina”

This correspondence is from José Fusté, a graduate student in the Ethnic Studies Department at UC San Diego:

It is important that people know that the government’s response to San Diego fires has not been as benevolent as the news media has made it out to be. For immigrant families, this is in no way an “anti-Katrina.” Immigrants in San Diego County are being neglected by emergency evacuators, put in danger by their employers, treated rudely by authorities and volunteers, refused aid at evacuation sites, and racially profiled by police and deported by the Border Patrol.

There are two important sides to this story that show this has been a recurrent pattern for the past week:

Immigrants are being neglected by authorities and forced to work in farms adjacent to fires.

The San Diego Union Tribune reported today [October 25] that many immigrants living in remote canyons and fields near the fires are not evacuating. In some cases, authorities have not informed them of mandatory evacuations in their areas of residence. Others don’t want to leave their homes either because they are afraid of losing their jobs or are scared of getting caught by the Border Patrol.

Today, Border Patrol agents found the charred bodies of four people—three men and a woman—in a canyon in Potrero. Authorities presume them to be immigrants and are trying to determine how they died. Some are saying they might have been border crossers but some are speculating they may have been canyon dwellers who failed to evacuate. Up until today, these amount to roughly one quarter of all deaths directly and indirectly caused by the fires.

This afternoon, I spoke with Enrique Morones, founder and director of Border Angels. He and other volunteers have been touring rural areas trying to convince immigrant families to evacuate. He reports that there have been numerous instances in which immigrant laborers are being  told to stay working in farms  inside mandatorily evacuated areas, with not even breathing masks to protect their health. This poses a great risk for them primarily because of the polluted air they are breathing.

I also spoke to Greg Morales from Border Angels and the Mexican American Poets Association. He is the person in charge of receiving food and water donations for immigrants at the historic Chicano Park in the community of Barrio Logan. He reports that authorities are neglecting and in some instances impeding their efforts to bring critical supplies to immigrants in the affected areas. In the past three days, they have loaded about two hundred vehicles full of supplies. Volunteers have been trying to transport these goods to the immigrant communities that need them most.  Several of them attempted to take these supplies to Potrero, a rural community in the fire zone near the Tecate crossing of the U.S.-Mexico border. California Highway Patrol officials tried to prevent  them from entering and reportedly said to them: “Why do you want to go into Potrero? Most people have gone. There’s nothing but drug dealers there now.” 

This morning, volunteers gathering donations at Chicano Park received an unwelcome visit from seven members of the Minutemen. They have also received visits from people accusing them of distributing supplies stolen from other evacuee shelters, something that everybody working there emphatically denied. Volunteers have also been intimidated by police officers who have scrutinized their operation all day. When I asked Mr. Morales what help, if any, they had received from authorities, he responded: “the only thing we’ve gotten from the government is police harassment this morning, giving us grief for being here.”

Immigrant evacuees at Qualcomm Stadium are threatened with deportation and mistreated by authorities and volunteers.

Yesterday, the Union-Tribune reported that six illegal immigrants who were suspected of stealing relief supplies from Qualcomm Stadium—the largest of all evacuation sites—were arrested by Border Patrol agents. According to the article, a woman who saw them loading supplies unto a pickup truck reported them to police Sgt. Jesse Cesena. “They were stealing a lot of stuff,” Cesena said. The article claims that when officers intervened, one of the suspects confessed they were being paid to take things of value from the stadium.

Cesena said, “We took the stuff back and we escorted them out. They were stealing from the people in need.” The article then states that “because some members of the group spoke Spanish, officers called Border Patrol agents who were at the stadium for relief efforts. They determined the people were in the country illegally and arrested them.”

Today, the Union-Tribune wrote a new article clarifying what actually transpired (they have yet to make a formal correction). The article reveals that the people the Border Patrol apprehended and deported on Wednesday were two couples, one with three children. Originally they tried to deport a third family that was with them but because they produced documentation, they were released.

According to a Union-Tribune reporter who spoke with some of the deportees over the phone from Tijuana, they claim that contrary to initial reports by authorities, they did not confess to stealing anything.     They said that they were taking items donated to them as they prepared to return home. This was also confirmed by eyewitnesses I spoke to today.

This incident caused a great deal of anxiety for immigrant families staying at Qualcomm. It prompted immigrant rights activists to go to the site and serve as legal observers and translators. Today, I spent half a day today working as a legal observer and a volunteer translator for the San Diego Coalition for Immigrant Rights. I spoke to Andrea Guerrero, an ACLU immigration rights lawyer and one of the people in charge of legal observers at the evacuation sites. Guerrero claims that the apprehensions and deportations of these immigrants are potentially illegal since San Diego Police Officers are not supposed to report undocumented immigrants to Border Patrol agents unless they are formally arrested and charged with a crime. I should note that none of the individuals deported were charged with robbery by San Diego police. She and other ACLU lawyers consulted this issue with the local police chief at the stadium. He admitted that the ordeal was poorly handled.

All of the ACLU lawyers and  Immigrant Rights Consortium volunteers I spoke to  are convinced that the arrest and deportation of these six immigrants was prompted by racial profiling. Today, I was able to observe how one African-American  family was accused of stealing supplies as they  loaded  their belongings into their SUV. They assured officers and witnesses that they were taking supplies donated to them just like everybody else. This did not stop several overzealous European-American onlookers from writing down their license plate, taking digital camera pictures of  their car, and commenting on  their “audacity” for taking so many things.

Wednesday’s arrests and deportations together with what I witnessed at Qualcomm today reminded me of Katrina. We all know how in the aftermath of the hurricane, the media portrayed white residents of New Orleans who were taking supplies from destroyed shops as “scavengers” while simultaneously criminalizing African Americans doing the same as “looters.” That same type of racial profiling and criminalization is clearly occurring in San Diego during this catastrophe.

The deportation of these six immigrants was followed by a security crackdown at Qualcomm. Authorities set up ID verification checkpoints at all gates. They began to patrol the stadium asking people for proper identification. The city of San Diego claims this was done to prevent those who were not supposed to be staying there from taking donations, food, and drink. According to many people I spoke to, this scared a lot of immigrants staying at the site. Guerrero estimates that about 25 immigrant families left in fear of being apprehended. Many others were also forced out of the stadium last night for not showing proper identification. It is hard to tell how many but Guerrero estimates that up to a thousand were told to leave. We are assuming that this disproportionately affected immigrant families who were hesitant to show their ID. It also affected people who did not have a chance to bring their identification with them when they were being evacuated.

At Qualcomm, I spoke to about six immigrant families (approximately 30 people), most of whom confessed to me they were undocumented. All of them said that after the arrest of the six immigrants suspected of stealing supplies, they all felt extremely frightened they too would be deported. Most of them also complained of being treated rudely and unfairly by authorities and volunteers. One undocumented Mexican evacuee from Ramona I spoke to said that volunteers refused to give her a 12-pack of juice boxes as they gave the same pack to white evacuees. The Union-Tribune reports another similar incident: a woman said that “she asked a volunteer for diapers for her 2-year-old son, who had diarrhea, and was handed three individual diapers. Then when I was leaving, they gave an American woman a whole box, she said.” Legal observers/translators I spoke to today confirmed that they intervened in similar incidents. Another undocumented Mexican evacuee I spoke to said she has been staying in Qualcomm but after Wednesday’s arrest, she is too afraid to ask for food and supplies. Her husband—who is Guatemalan and also undocumented—reported that on Wednesday night, authorities threatened to evict his father-in-law from the stadium for not having proper identification. It was only after he intervened and showed them his driver’s license that they allowed him to stay.

People need to know that the same way that the government doesn’t care about working-class black people in New Orleans; it also doesn’t care about working-class Latino immigrant families in California.

For a detailed report on the numerous civil and human rights violations committed during the San Diego Wildfires, go to:

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