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The Forgotten Victims of the California Wildfires: Undocumented Migrant Workers

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Andrea Guerrero of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium says law enforcement deported evacuees and checked identifications of evacuees fleeing fires. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Thousands of people are beginning to return home as the wildfires across Southern California slowly die out. But for the thousands of undocumented migrant workers in San Diego’s lucrative agriculture industry, the process is fraught with the threat of harassment and deportation.

According to the Los Angeles Times, over a hundred Border Patrol agents have been redeployed to evacuation centers and neighborhood checkpoints for returning residents. Rumors of immigration raids only increased when an undocumented family was deported to Mexico Wednesday after local law enforcement arrested them for allegedly stealing food. Immigrant rights groups claim local law enforcement is racially profiling immigrants. They say there is no need for them to involve Border Patrol agents.

Andrea Guerrero is the chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium. She is also the field and policy director of the ACLU in San Diego, joining us now from San Diego.

Welcome to Democracy Now! Andrea, can you begin by just laying out the problem for us?

ANDREA GUERRERO: Well, the problem began when city officials at Qualcomm Stadium invited Border Patrol to set up a tent for informational purposes about the fire locations, and this created immediate apprehension among both the documented and undocumented immigrants at Qualcomm Stadium.

The situation was exacerbated when, around midnight on early Wednesday morning, San Diego city police walked around the stadium, waking up families and checking for identification both to ascertain the identity of individuals and to ascertain that they were in fact evacuees from evacuated zones. Anyone who didn’t have that identification that corresponded to an evacuation zone were asked to leave. This adversely impacted homeless people, those without proper documents and those who didn’t have documents that corresponded to the correct address. So this affected mostly undocumented individuals, but it also affected other individuals, as well.

This was further exacerbated, as you pointed out, by the deportation of a family of evacuees that had been encouraged to take supplies back home, because they didn’t know what they would find back home. And upon exiting the evacuation center, they were apprehended by city police. They were alleged with looting; they were not formally charged. Border Patrol was called in. Border Patrol undertook an immigration inspection and then ultimately deported them. This created even more apprehension among the documented and undocumented immigrants at Qualcomm Stadium and has led to an overall climate of fear and apprehension. In certain instances, there were families inside Qualcomm Stadium who were afraid to leave, and those — there were those who left and didn’t take any supplies, much-needed supplies, because they were afraid that they also would be subject to an immigration inspection. There are many more who never came to an evacuation center, because of all of this that they were hearing about.

And so, we’re very concerned about the sensitivity to this vulnerable population and the climate that was created at Qualcomm, in particular, by the presence of Border Patrol, by the document inspection conducted by city police, and by the inspection of evacuees who were leaving of the goods that they were taking. The city police, in some instances, rounded up people, surrounded their cars, had them count heads to blankets. All of this was uncalled for. There were mountains and mountains of donated items at Qualcomm Stadium. And it seemed to be simply a matter of inspecting people to harass them, to intimidate them. It’s not clear what the purpose of those inspections were.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrea, do you know who the bodies were — have they been identified? — of four people found along the border by Border Patrol, burned?

ANDREA GUERRERO: They have been identified by the Mexican consulate. I don’t know their names exactly, but they were four individuals. The are Mexican nationals, and the Mexican consulate is still trying to ascertain where the family members of those individuals may be.

AMY GOODMAN: And, overall, the death toll — do you have any sense of immigrants who were caught in the fires?

ANDREA GUERRERO: My understanding is that there were only seven deaths in this fire, and that in itself is remarkable. That’s a credit to the first responders, the firefighters, etc., given the scope of this fire. However, four of those were immigrants. We don’t know if they were documented or undocumented. We don’t know the circumstances of their death. But that’s over half.

We do know that a great number of migrant farm workers were too afraid to come out of danger zones. In some instances, they were forced to continue working in the fields through the evacuations in danger zones, and they had to be drawn out by immigrant advocates. They were too afraid to come out on their own. So we’re very concerned that this was not an appropriate response, this was not a humanitarian response, by our law enforcement officials and others who were in charge of handling the evacuations.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re talking to Andrea Guerrero, who is with the ACLU and chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium. The family that was deported on Wednesday, can you tell us who they were?

ANDREA GUERRERO: This was a family of six individuals and one two-year-old U.S. citizen national. And they were part of a larger extended family that was at Qualcomm Stadium. There were initially approximately — there were over a dozen family members detained by San Diego city police. When Border Patrol undertook its immigration inspection, they found these six adults to be without proper documentation, and they deported them, as well as the two-year-old citizen child.

AMY GOODMAN: What are you calling for now, Andrea Guerrero?

ANDREA GUERRERO: Well, the fires have ceased, and we’re grateful for that. There are tens of thousands of evacuees who are displaced. They either can’t go back to their homes because they have no homes, or they don’t have enough resources back at home in order to survive. They can’t care for their young children or their needy.

We are very concerned at this moment about the response from FEMA and from Red Cross and from city and county officials in providing for these individuals who may not all have legal documentation. We’re concerned about the ability of the emergency officials to reach out to this population, given their lack of language capacity. The Immigrant Rights Consortium has been serving as interpreters for FEMA, Red Cross, city and county officials at the evacuation centers and at other locations. They have not come equipped with the language capacity that they need. They are not resourced to assist the Spanish-speaking monolingual community. That is a grave concern of ours. They have not distributed information in Spanish. The Spanish information that is available has been translated by us or by news agencies. It has not been made publicly available by the emergency response agencies themselves. We are meeting with those agencies today. We hope to express our concern and make a change immediately, get something out in the media and have these agencies commit their resources to reaching this population, which we believe is still very much in dire need of emergency supplies and support.

AMY GOODMAN: The Los Angeles Times also reporting that Tijuana firefighters were allowed over the border to help fight the fires.

ANDREA GUERRERO: That’s right. There are a lot of hero stories in this fire, and they included Tijuana firefighters who came across and were not paid. They came over as volunteer firefighters and fought those fires day and night alongside U.S. firefighters. We’re also aware of immigrants who stayed behind to save houses. There were, I think, four immigrants who saved several houses in a wealthy area in Rancho Bernardo, and they were duly congratulated by the homeowners, but they themselves are the kind of people who would be potentially too scared to go into an evacuation center, because they might be subject to an immigration inspection.

AMY GOODMAN: Andrea Guerrero, I want to ask you an issue — about an issue related, but not related to the fires at all, and that’s the issue of driver’s licenses. Here in New York, there’s a controversy raging. The governor, Governor Eliot Spitzer, had first proposed that undocumented immigrants be able to get driver’s licenses. On Friday, he announced a new plan, and that is they could get driver’s licenses, but they wouldn’t be allowed to be used as identification going into federal buildings or on planes. Can you talk about what’s happening in California around this issue and the significance of what’s happening here in New York?

ANDREA GUERRERO: In California, we’re facing the same debate. There’s a tremendous need, I believe, for documentation of drivers for insurance purposes. Without a driver’s license here in California, you cannot get driver’s insurance, you cannot get a great number of things. You can’t access to certain buildings. And having thousands and tens of thousands of uninsured drivers on the road is not a benefit to anyone. We need a way to identify people. We need to know who’s here. We need to know that people can access insurance in the protection of their own families, and that lowers everybody’s insurance rates.

This is part of a larger immigration debate going on nationally about what do we do about these 12 million undocumented individuals and whether it’s realistic to or pragmatic to try to enforce them to leave, or whether we need to think about accommodating them and having a comprehensive fix to our immigration laws.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for being with us, Andrea Guerrero, chair of the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium, also the policy director at the ACLU in San Diego, joining us from San Diego.

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