Sunday, July 26, 2009 | Three years ago, as the debate over immigration policy raged nationally, it raged in Escondido, too.

In 2006, the City Council passed a rental ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants. The Police Department increased its use of traffic checkpoints targeting unlicensed drivers in an effort, the new police chief said, to address the city’s high rate of hit-and-run accidents, although critics complained it was another measure aimed at undocumented immigrants.

The rental ordinance was ultimately repealed amid legal challenges, but the traffic checkpoints continue. As recently as October the council considered a law that would have required permits for overnight parking in residential neighborhoods. The council said it was responding to concerns over parking congestion, but the measure would only have applied to the city’s urban core, where many of its immigrants live in multi-family households.

As the council debated the rental ordinance in the summer and fall of 2006, supporters and opponents of the measure descended on City Hall, deeply dividing its population. Lines of police and firefighters separated demonstrators and the councilwoman who proposed the ordinance hired personal body guards.

In the years following, the additional ordinances and resolutions targeting Escondido’s undocumented population cultivated the city’s reputation nationally as a haven for anti-immigrant sentiment, and as an anomaly in San Diego County’s local governments. Aside from a Vista ordinance placing restrictions on day-labor hiring and occasional traffic checkpoints in Oceanside, Escondido’s municipal initiatives have stood alone targeting illegal immigrants.

But the council’s priorities have shifted since December. That was when local coffee shop owner Olga Diaz was sworn in as the first Latina in the council’s history, excluding one councilman who served in the 1990s but didn’t discuss his Mexican heritage. Latino residents and activists, who felt targeted by the previous council, greeted her election with a collective sigh of relief.

She defeated a conservative incumbent, Ed Gallo, whose vote was one of three — a majority — on the five-member council that had consistently favored the controversial measures. Since Diaz took the seat, discussion of immigration on the council has stopped.

“Just by winning I completely changed the tone of every conversation we have on council,” Diaz said. “We don’t talk about immigration anymore. We don’t talk about day laborers. I displaced one of those three votes which I contend held the city hostage on those issues for a long time.”

Her victory represented a step toward a council more representative of the city’s changing demographic. Forty-five percent of the city’s 140,000 residents are Hispanic, and that number is growing, according to the San Diego Association of Governments. In 2000, Hispanics made up 39 percent of the city’s population, and are expected to account for almost 60 percent by 2020.

But in breaking the council majority, Diaz also highlighted how a single vote at City Hall had far-reaching implications for the city’s reputation and its residents. Her presence on the council has forced the two remaining members of the previous majority to re-assess their approach to immigration policy.

One of those council members, Sam Abed, recently spoke with a reporter minutes before meeting with a local Latino pastor to discuss his mayoral bid. Abed said the council had learned from its experiences with the rescinded and failed ordinances of recent years.

“We started to shift our focus from an immigrant-driven policy to a quality-of-life focus,” he said.

“Quickly we learned that this was a federal government issue and we backed off. But we certainly sent a strong message that you cannot just cross the border, come to Escondido, buy a car in the street, drive it unlicensed … and go live in a garage. This is not acceptable. We have a living standard that we have to protect,” he said.

In a city with such a large and growing Latino population, theories abound on the political calculus that would have motivated the council’s previous initiatives.

“There’s this old political saying that if you want to see who the voters are going to be 15 years from now, just stick your head in any kindergarten classroom,” said Bill Flores, director of administration for El Grupo, a coalition of organizations that focus on regional issues in North County. “Sixty-five percent of the faces in those classes in Escondido are brown.”

As the city’s white population ages while its immigrant community expands, that percentage keeps growing, Flores said.

“Those that are entrenched in the political establishment here don’t like it,” he said. “They’re a threat to the political establishment, and they’re going to start taking action to reduce that number.”

Some, like Diaz, have argued that the council’s actions in recent years were less representative of the community’s wishes than of the personal ideologies of its individual members.

Before 2006, Diaz said, there was little evidence in the city of the racial tensions that boiled over as a result of the proposed ordinances.

But Marie Waldron, the councilmember who introduced the rental ordinance, maintained throughout the debate that her proposal was motivated by constituent concerns.

“When I brought this ordinance forward it was in direct result to numerous, countless complaints by citizens over the last couple of years,” she said at a 2006 council meeting. “If we want to attract high-end business, quality business, raise the median income and stop the importation of poverty to our city, we must act to end overcrowding.”

The efforts have sparked something of a backlash in Escondido, where for the first time activists are making concerted efforts to organize Latinos and tap their community’s significant electoral clout.

“It has had a cohesive effect within the Latino community,” Flores said. “The Latino community has never been as connected as it is now, and I point to Olga Diaz as evidence of that.”

Diaz emphasizes, though, that her election was the result of a broad base of supporters that included young people, firefighters, and fiscal conservatives who had grown disenchanted with the previous council’s spending plans.

Still, following Diaz’s election, members of the Escondido Human Rights Committee have begun working with other Latino activists to identify potential future candidates for council offices, said Consuelo Martinez, a former coordinator for the group.

Diaz said displaced Councilmember Ed Gallo has stated his intentions to seek another seat on the council. But the Latino community hopes the next election will yield another candidate friendly to the concerns of immigration supporters, and further shift the council’s makeup.

It’s a shift that the two remaining members of the previous council majority, Abed and Waldron, have had to contend with as they remain on the council without the assurance of their previous three vote majority.

Instead of targeting illegal immigrants, Abed said, he has sought to address neighborhood blight and business promotion through local revitalization projects and by trying to attract high end shops, he said.

He has advocated reviving “deteriorated neighborhoods” by limiting the types of businesses, such as 99-cent stores, that can move into the city’s retail strips in order to increase the city’s overall quality of life, he said.

But even those proposals have not escaped scrutiny.

Critics have argued that quality-of-life proposals come at the expense of poor, often immigrant residents who would have fewer options if lower-cost retail was restricted. Such proposals, Martinez said, would have effects similar to the anti-immigration measures, only less direct.

Abed rejected that notion as a “political facade.”

“We cannot be a magnet for poverty,” he said.

Please contact Adrian Florido directly at adrian.florido@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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