Tuesday, Nov. 21, 2006 | Residents of the Torrey Santa Fe subdivision in Rancho Peñasquitos have grown accustomed to outsiders. As the sun rises each morning, dozens of migrant workers emerge from the scrub-filled canyons beyond the neighborhood’s cul-de-sacs and make their way down its sidewalks toward work.
It’s been a part of the daily routine here since these million-dollar homes were first built five years ago. But the news helicopters that hovered above the neighborhood last weekend were something new.
Media outlets – some as international as the BBC – turned out en masse on Saturday to cover a rally organized by a Rancho Peñasquitos resident, an AM talk radio host and a local Minutemen group upset with the fact that people live in the canyon’s shantytowns. Joining the organizers Saturday was a mix of tattooed biker types, retirees and suburban moms with kids fresh from soccer games in tow.
The crowd, estimated at about 200 people, gathered on a patch of city-owned land and carried dozens of American flags and signs emblazoned with slogans like “only traitors hire illegal aliens.” Some brought along pit bulls and other large dogs. They sang patriotic songs like “The Star Spangled Banner” and “God Bless the USA (Proud to Be an American),” chatted about immigration and traded insults with a handful of human rights observers there to monitor the event.
But the people who actually live in the neighborhood here had mixed feelings about the protest. Some thought drawing attention to the fact that migrants live in the canyon was a positive thing, while others said the migrants are good people, who work hard, mind their own business and deserve to be left alone.
“I want them all to go home,” Howard Merrikea said of the protesters and news crews. Merrikea lives a block from the canyon and said he’s never had any trouble with the canyon’s residents in his four years in the neighborhood.
Police and city officials blamed sensational media coverage leading up to the event, saying misinformation regarding allegations of prostitution and drug use fueled plans for anti-illegal immigration protestors to camp out in the canyon.
“We have right-wing radio on our tails,” said City Council President Scott Peters, a moderate Democrat whose district includes Rancho Peñasquitos. “That’s a big part of this.”
In anticipation of the campout and possible confrontations, DR Horton, a developer that owns property in the canyon, evicted approximately 150 people who live there in shacks – a portion of them likely undocumented immigrants. DR Horton and Pardee Homes, another developer that owns land in the canyon, threatened anyone who trespassed – migrants or protestors – with arrest.
Merrikea said he attended Saturday’s rally to let the protestors know that his family doesn’t want them in their neighborhood. His message was not well received by the crowd that shuffled about a gravel lot overlooking the nearby tomato fields where many of the migrants work.
Several people engaged Merrikea in heated verbal exchanges.
While television crews swarmed around the shouting matches, police and city officials say the media deserves much of the credit for sparking the most recent flare-up in the long-running controversy over what to do about the canyon dwellers.
“This unfolded with a lot of information being given out without a lot of research,” said Boyd Long, captain of the San Diego Police Department’s Northern Division.
Two weeks ago, a Los Angeles NBC affiliate produced a television news story alleging that prostitution and drug dealing were prevalent in the canyon camps. When Long was interviewed for the segment, he asked the reporter, Ana Garcia, for evidence of the crimes. Long said he was told he’d have to watch the news.
But when Garcia’s story aired in San Diego and Los Angeles it only showed two grainy images of women walking through a wooded area and no video of any drug dealing.
“I saw no evidence of drug use or prostitution,” Long said. “I didn’t see anything but women there.”
Long said that while he wouldn’t rule out the possibility that those crimes occur in the canyon, he said previous prostitution investigations there have yielded no arrests. The mere presence of women in the camp is not surprising considering that many work at a nearby tomato-packing plant, he said.
News segments making similar claims aired two more times over the next week.
“It took an L.A. news station to come down here and expose this,” said Julie Adams at Saturday’s event. “I call it our dirty little secret.”
Adams, a Rancho Peñasquitos resident who helped organize the rally, has been an outspoken opponent of the migrant camps. She was featured in all of Garcia’s stories and also teamed up with a local group of Minutemen to hold a canyon cleanup that garnered additional television coverage last week.
After Garcia’s segments aired, Rick Roberts, the conservative host of a local radio talk show, featured Adams on his program every day last week. Roberts made similar claims about drug dealing and prostitution and promoted Saturday’s event as the “first annual McGonigle Canyon legal resident campout.”
Mayor Jerry Sanders appeared on Roberts’ show last Friday and credited the host for bringing pressure to bear on the issue. “I think that obviously a fire has been lit now and I think you will see some action occurring rapidly,” Sanders said.
But not everyone views Roberts’ intervention so favorably.
Peters said migrants have lived in the canyons in the area for more than 20 years, well before many of the homes in the area were constructed. He believes residents have become increasingly concerned as new development has reduced the amount of open space and forced the neighborhood’s two divergent populations to have greater interaction.
However, Peters said he thinks any resulting tensions haven’t been soothed any by Roberts’ rhetoric.
The council president said he didn’t think the general community was very concerned about the migrants in the canyon. He credited a relatively small, yet vocal, minority with stirring up a situation that derailed the city’s plans to close the camps at the end of the tomato season in December, when many of the migrants voluntarily return to their home countries.
That plan had been moving forward since July, with representatives from Peters’ office and the police department meeting with property owners. Vehicle access to the canyon has been permanently blocked and the owners were in the process of posting “no trespassing” signs on their property. The last steps were to post signs on the migrant’s shacks and ask them to leave.
“What they have done is accelerated something that was already in place,” Long said of Adams and Roberts.
Roberts didn’t attend Saturday’s rally because of safety concerns, Adams said. The city refused to let the protestors camp out on its land, forcing them to settle for just a protest.
Some of the neighbors from the subdivision attended the rally. Jill and Greg Gower supported the protesters.
“Everyone’s a bit concerned about it,” said Jill Gower, the secretary of the neighborhood homeowners association. Residents don’t feel safe using the canyon’s trails for recreation, and migrants park their cars in the neighborhood, leaving little room for residents, Gower said.
“I doubt it will help,” Greg Gower said of the protest. “But I think it’s good that they are out here voicing their opinions.”
The entire ordeal seems ridiculous to Anthony Rogers, who watched the rally from his house, where he’s lived immediately adjacent to the canyon for five years. A retired city police officer, Rogers said he keeps a close eye on the neighborhood and said the migrants don’t cause any trouble.
Rogers said he keeps his doors unlocked and leaves his car keys in the ignition over night. He also allows the migrants to use his garden hose, recharge their cell phones at his home and has driven a few to the hospital for medical care, he said.
“I think most of the neighbors here aren’t concerned too much,” Rogers said. “To be honest, you never really hear any of the neighbors complain.”
Tony and Marietta Bautista, Filipino immigrants who have lived next to Rogers and the canyon for four years, said they are sympathetic to the plight of the migrants but have concerns that one of their cooking fires will spark a larger conflagration.
“I’m not against what these guys do because they have to survive,” Tony Bautista said. “But where do you stop all this and begin correcting it?”
Looking for balance in the larger national immigration debate, Tony Bautista said he doesn’t welcome the media or the protestors. He’s afraid all the publicity could negatively impact local property values.
Rogers said he too believes that people living in the canyon is small part of a larger federal issue. He said he thinks the attention should be on securing the nation’s borders.
“I think the problem is more dynamic than just this” community, Rogers said.
He didn’t expect that the neighborhood would change much in the wake of the protest.
“It will blow over and six months from now there will be two guys, then four guys and then six guys living in the canyon,” he said.