Thursday, October 5, 2006
On Wednesday, the Escondido City Council passed a new law making it illegal for landlords to rent to undocumented immigrants. It’s the first such ordinance of its kind in California, and it’s polarizing this normally sleepy North County town. Supporters say the highly controversial initiative aims to stem the tide of illegal immigration and broach the problem of apartment overcrowding. Opponents call it a racially-motivated attack on Latinos that will throw families out on the streets.
An estimated 700 people turned out for Wednesday night’s meeting, many rallying in front of city hall before the vote. Nearly 200 law enforcement officers from various agencies kept the two groups apart. The San Diego Minutemen and other anti-illegal immigrant activists waved signs in support of the ordinance, while immigrant rights groups protested what they call a discriminatory law.
Although close to 75 citizens spoke during the packed meeting, the council majority had already made up its mind. Three of the five members voted for the rental ban, which penalizes landlords who rent to illegal immigrants. Upon receiving valid complaints, the city plans to verify citizenship with the federal government. Landlords found renting to illegal immigrants will be given ten days to evict them. And if they fail to comply, they will lose their business license and could later face fines or jail. Many landlords say this ordinance will force them to discriminate against minorities.
Roy Garrett, Escondido landlord: Any reasonable landlord is going to have to deal with this law, and how would you deal with it? Would you take the risk of going to jail or paying $1,000 a day for violating the city ordinance or violate civil code sections to throw people out in a minute? No, you'd take neither of those risks, just turn people down. Simple, it's insidious; it's immoral, unjust and a violation of the United States constitution.
Jeff Schwilk, San Diego Minutemen Founder: It's a common sense solution to a major problem in Escondido. You have a massive amount of overcrowding in certain areas of the city, and they are helpless to deal with it using the codes that already exist. And the federal government won't enforce the federal law which prohibits renting to illegal immigrants. So they were forced to come up with this to deal with the safety and welfare of the citizens of Escondido.
The council majority say this ordinance will help address the city’s increasing poverty and overcrowding, which they believe is fueled by illegal immigrants.
Opponents of the law argue that’s oversimplifying a complex relationship, in which illegal immigrants contribute cheap labor for American goods and services.
Gary and Lynda Lockard are Escondido high school sweethearts. The 40-year couple shows off their Model A, as part of Escondido’s cruising grand event. The Lockards love the tree-lined small town flavor of Escondido, but say an influx of illegal immigrants is taxing their hometown.
Gary Lockard: I have no problem with legal immigration at all. It's strictly people coming here illegally and getting on all of our services and everything and our welfare system and getting a free ride. It's not right because the free ride isn't free. It comes out of the taxpayer, who is my pocket.
The Lockards support the new renter’s ordinance, along with Councilmember Sam Abed, who agrees that illegal immigration is out of control in Escondido.
SANDAG says the Latino population is now at 42 percent, up from about 16 percent in 1990. But there are only rough estimates on the percentage of illegal immigrants in Escondido.
Sam Abed: We have already half of our population are Hispanic, and half of the Hispanic population is estimated to be illegals. So we have a big challenge as a city with very limited resources to address the illegal immigration issue. However, we feel this ordinance will stop the flood of illegal immigrants to Escondido and that's our goal.
Bill Flores, El Grupo: We hear some council members throwing out numbers, but the truth is, it's a hidden number. They don't know. No one knows.
El Grupo’s Bill Flores spearheaded opposition to the ordinance. He says its real aim is to drive out Latino residents, legal or not. The retired police officer says post 9/11 fears have turned into discriminatory policies aimed at hard-working Americans.
Bill Flores: It morphed from sealing the borders to “lets kick out these illegal alien families, kick them out of their apartments,” despite the fact that they're working, they're contributing to the economy, that they pay their rent on time, they're law-abiding citizens, all that gets swept aside.
Aide Perez, Escondido resident: A lot of people work in the field. Don't be offended, but a lot of white people doesn't like to do that. And we do it because we really need to do it. We need the money. We need to provide the money to our family to have a better life. So we are contributing a lot.
Aide Perez says she’s a legal citizen, as are her parents and four daughters.
Seven family members share this apartment in the rundown Mission Park neighborhood. The ordinance – focused on this part of town – has Perez worried about friends and other families members, like children of undocumented immigrants.
Aide Perez: There will be a lot of more kids like homeless and it's going to be more people on the street. For me, it's going to be worse than we are right now.
Sam Abed: This is a totally unacceptable place to raise your kids and your family.
Rebecca Tolin: What's unacceptable about these units?
Sam Abed: There are a lot of health and safety issues. There are electrical wires exposed to children.
Councilmember Abed says blighted Mission Park underscores the overcrowding problem. It houses almost twelve percent of the city’s 141,000 residents. Abed says the new ordinance aims to crack down on landlords renting one unit to multiple families. But Bill Flores says all the city has to do is enforce its existing housing codes, instead of targeting impoverished Latinos.
Sam Abed: I've been to Mission Park myself a few days ago. It's a disgrace to our nation, to our city, to continue allowing four and five families living in two-bedroom apartments. It's a health and safety issue and we need to address that right away.
Bill Flores: This ordinance will not address overcrowding; it will not address the poverty that causes this overcrowding. What it’s going to address is immigration status, because they feel that's there's just too many Mexicans in this town.
There will be another reading of the rental law in two weeks, followed by a 30-day waiting period. And already, there are threats of legal action.
Click play to view video, including a discussion with Reporter Rebecca Tolin and Dan McSwain, editorial writer for the San Diego Union Tribune.