SAN DIEGO -- In the '60s, Escondido was primarily a white and affluent suburban community. As the center of avocado production, the city experience fast economic growth and saw an influx of immigrant workers. Today, Latinos outnumber whites, and that change has made some people uncomfortable.
In 2006, the Escondido City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants, but that law was struck down in court. Soon after that, local law enforcement followed up with another controversial measure -- drivers license checkpoints.
Typically, a major street in downtown Escondido is backed up with traffic because it’s the site of a driver's license checkpoint -- a place where cars are pulled over to check for valid licenses and small infractions, like broken taillights. The checkpoint was the brainchild of Escondido Police Chief, Jim Maher. By instituting the checkpoints, Maher caught undocumented immigrants who weren't authorized to have a California driver's license.
"It wasn't until 2007 that some of the activist groups began to claim that the checkpoints were designed to scare Latinos," Maher said. "But Latinos are smart enough to know that if you have a license, you're treated the same as anybody else at a checkpoint."
As he speaks, Maher is seated next to Leticia Garduno, the new community liaison for the police department and a woman of Mexican descent. But Maher's critics say his department's new efforts to reach out to the Latino community won't fix the police department's reputation.
"The checkpoints, the rental ban ordinance, create an environment that sends a very clear and strong message that 'Latinos, you're not welcome here,'" said Bill Flores, a sheriff's deputy-turned-activist and an Escondido resident. "'We're going to continue with these programs until the number of Latinos goes down.' But I don't think that's gonna happen."
Maher recently agreed to continue a pilot program that puts two U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers on patrol with Escondido gang officers. But the American Civil Liberties Union and activists like Flores said that partnership is targeting Latinos on the street.
The ACLU said stopping people for document checks is a violation of the Fourth Amendment, the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures, unless federal law enforcement has reason to believe they're committing a crime. The ACLU also said it can lead to racial profiling.
Groups working with immigrants said the police crackdowns have instilled fear and silence in the community. Our efforts to speak to local residents about their experiences with police were unsuccessful.
Olga Diaz is the first Latino to sit on the Escondido City Council. She's emerged as a top critic of the increased policing.
"In Escondido, these are the facts: declining crime, increasing Latino population," she says. "But the sentiment being expressed by the people in positions of authority, their interpretation was that all crime was because of the undocumented. It's almost as if they didn't bother to look at the statistics that show otherwise."
Diaz said the city's crime rate fell to a 30-year low last year. But Maher said he defends the gang patrols and the checkpoints because they help to rid Escondido of criminals who also happen to be illegal immigrants.
Sitting at an Escondido coffee shop on a recent afternoon, immigration lawyer Carlos Batara explained why Escondido may have become the stage of such sentiment.
"You have an old community that was predominantly non-minority for so many years, and now you have an influx," he said. "And a lot of them not knowing better fear the influx, because they don't understand it."
Batara said he predicts as the legal and illegal immigrant populations continue to grow, other cities in Southern California may follow the lead of Escondido's tough policing practices.