Keeping the peace

Reports of confrontations between San Diego Minutemen, day laborers require increased law enforcement

By Kristina Davis
July 1, 2007
NORTH COUNTY – Every weekend, on a street corner somewhere in North County, San Diego Minutemen members face off against day laborers and their supporters.

Often, a police officer has been assigned to keep watch.

Law enforcement officials say monitoring these emotional, politicized demonstrations is a necessity, as each side of the immigration debate repeatedly accuses the other of breaking the law or violating civil rights.

“Our job is to make sure we don't get involved in this emotionally at all,” said Encinitas sheriff's Sgt. Chuck Yancey. “Our job is to preserve the peace and preserve constitutional rights.”

At the very least, patrol officers periodically check on the scene as they drive from call to call.

Reports of heated confrontations have required some agencies to dedicate officers to day-laborer sites for several hours on weekends.

“It is taxing to our resources,” said Fallbrook sheriff's Lt. Alex Dominguez. “Especially in the Fallbrook area. We don't have a huge staff out here.”

Recently, sheriff's deputies have been working overtime Saturday mornings to keep the peace at the ARCO gas station on Mission Road in Bonsall, the latest hot spot for San Diego Minutemen activity.

With megaphones, signs and fliers, the anti-illegal-immigration activists try to discourage potential employers from hiring the day laborers, many of whom are believed to be illegal immigrants.

In turn, advocates for the day laborers videotape the Minutemen's actions and watch for civil-rights violations. They say many of the workers are legal residents.

A similar scene plays out almost weekly at day-labor sites around North County.

“It seems like, for the most part, both sides know what the ground rules are,” Dominguez said. “If not, when we arrive on scene, we explain that to them.”

The San Diego Minutemen is one of dozens of groups to emerge from the The Minuteman Project, a national movement that started in 2005. The group's platform, in general, is to demand border security and oppose illegal immigration.

In the past, Escondido police have posted officers at the Carl's Jr. at Mission Avenue and Quince Street, where day laborers and Minutemen members congregated in large numbers.

“Just having a marked unit there we find prevents a lot of problems down the road,” Escondido police Lt. Bob Benton said. “People realize they're going to be held accountable for their actions.”

Day laborers and Minutemen members also frequent the Shell gas station on Encinitas Boulevard west of Interstate 5 in Encinitas, and in Carlsbad along El Camino Real.

Patrol officers periodically monitor activity at those sites, but increased police presence hasn't been necessary in recent months, law enforcement officials said.

The local confrontations reflect the contentious debate over immigration reform that has polarized the nation.

Congress has been unable to find common ground, and lawmakers all but killed a bill Thursday that would have created a guest-worker program, tightened border security and provided ways to give legal status to the estimated 12 million illegal immigrants already in the United States.

While the protests generally are peaceful, some participants have gotten physical.

Allegations of pushing, spitting and trespassing are common.

“Each side tries to entice the other to break the law,” Yancey said. “Both sides make accusations, but once you look into them, you find out they're just stirring the pot, trying to get us to bite on something.”

Charges have been filed in recent cases, however.

In March, a man affiliated with the Minutemen was charged with battery on two day laborers in an incident last year in Rancho Peñasquitos.

Prosecutors say John Monti took photos of the workers, called them insulting names and then punched one man who tried to walk away.

Monti is accused of then calling San Diego police to report that he had been robbed and assaulted by a group of migrant workers.

In January, a reporter from The Village News of Fallbrook was placed under “citizen's arrest” on suspicion of battering a 14-year-old girl during a peaceful Minuteman Project protest in Bonsall.

The reporter objected to being videotaped by the girl, grabbed the camera lens and shoved, the girl and her mother told deputies. The reporter pleaded guilty to two counts of disturbing the peace and was placed on three years' probation, according to court records.

Minuteman member Ray Carney of Fallbrook said physical encounters go along with the territory.

“I've been punched, spit on, been called all kinds of vile names,” Carney said. “If you're going to be an advocate and not expect to get injured, spit on and have drinks thrown at you, then you're in the wrong business.”

Members of the San Diego Minutemen, including founder Jeff Schwilk, are under police scrutiny in connection with the vandalism of three migrant encampments near McGonigle Canyon in Rancho Peñasquitos.

Schwilk and others being investigated deny any part in the Jan. 27 incident. San Diego police say the investigation is ongoing and no charges have been filed.

Recently, sheriff's officials received reports that some Minutemen members were attaching yellow lights to the roofs of their vehicles and following potential employers home.
“For the past several weeks, I've seen the Minutemen pull out all the stops,” said attorney Claudia Smith, an advocate for day laborers.

Two weeks ago, deputies watching a protest in Fallbrook quickly pulled over a Minutemen member who showed up with a yellow light on his beige sedan. He received a warning for the illegal light.

“We're just wanting everyone to be safe, that's our bottom line,” Dominguez said. “We're fearful someone might get hurt.”

The San Diego Minutemen has recently accused the Sheriff's Department of being overly aggressive with enforcement.

“The other side – the ACLU observers – like to waste taxpayer money and police assets by calling these guys every five minutes and making up crime that supposedly we are committing,” Schwilk said at a Fallbrook rally. “We don't think that's very cool.

“Law enforcement is to be respected and used when needed, not as a tool for political statement,” said Schwilk, who wore a U.S. Border Patrol cap and U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement T-shirt.

Businesses also call police when the action gets too close to their property.

Employees at Carl's Jr. in Escondido have complained to police about Minutemen activists and day laborers who refuse to get off the property.

Manager Diana Orozco said the restaurant has noticeably fewer customers when the Minutemen members are protesting outside.

“We tell them they have to move by the street,” Orozco said. “They put their signs on my property, and most people don't come when they see those signs.”

Many Minutemen members still are fuming over an arrest at the Bonsall gas station a few weeks ago.

Allen Huther was cited for suspicion of trespassing and obstructing an officer in an investigation after he refused repeated requests by ARCO employees and a sheriff's deputy to leave, authorities said.

ARCO has a corporate policy that prohibits videotaping on its property.

“This is strictly a safety issue,” said corporate spokesman Todd Spitler.

Spitler said the company hopes to continue working with law enforcement to ensure a safe environment for customers and employees.

A week after Huther's arrest, Carney was among a group of Minutemen at a protest in Fallbrook who said deputies were becoming heavy-handed in dealing with the protesters.

“The police are overkill,” Carney said. “Certain officers don't like to be here. They'd rather be doing something else than baby-sitting a bunch of protesters, and they get agitated. Because this goes on every week – in Bonsall, somewhere in the county areas, Vista – and they just don't like being here.”

Day laborers standing in front of the ARCO station in Bonsall said they didn't mind the increased police presence.

If anything, it helps protect them against Minutemen members who yell and chase awaypotential employers, some said.

“The police come to make sure we are outside the gate on the sidewalk, so we're not on private property,” said Joel, 44, a day laborer who declined to give his last name.

Officers who are used to dealing with people on both sides of the debate have come to realize that managing demonstrations takes a delicate touch.

“Tempers can get high on both sides of the issues,” said Escondido police Sgt. Brian Knodel. “With some folks there's a sense of frustration. Some people perceive us as trying to take one side or another. We're not here to take sides.”