Los Angeles Times
August 2, 2004

Immigration Sweeps Become an Election Issue for Rep. Baca

San Bernardino congressman led protests of the roundups, complicating what had been viewed as an easy race for him.

By Hugo Martín
Times Staff Writer

The series of sweeps by Border Patrol agents in the Inland Empire and San Diego County appear to be over, but the political fallout may last until the November election.

Rep. Joe Baca (D-San Bernardino), a staunch Latino rights advocate, jumped into the political storm by leading a protest of the sweeps — which netted more than 450 suspected illegal immigrants — and helping prompt federal officials to suspend the roundups.

Because of his activism, Baca has become a lightning rod of criticism from supporters of the sweeps and from a Southern California Border Patrol union whose members felt the congressman vilified them for detaining the suspects, according to those from both parties watching the election closely.

The controversy is expected to transform Baca's reelection bid from a likely easy win to a compelling contest focusing on immigration.

Baca's stance on the sweeps has brought greater media attention and support to his Republican challenger, Ed Laning, a construction company executive who adamantly supports the Border Patrol operations.

Laning, a political novice, was the only GOP candidate in his party's primary.

Laning has taken to the air on radio talk shows to bash Baca for supporting illegal immigrants, and appeared at a Temecula rally to support the Border Patrol unit that detained the immigrants. He said he has received offers of support and at least $1,000 in campaign contributions that he attributes directly to the controversy.

"The feedback I'm getting from people is that they are unhappy with Joe," Laning said. "A lot of people feel like he is advocating for the illegals."

Robin Hvidston, a landlord and entrepreneur from Upland, said she heard about Baca's efforts to stop the sweeps on KFI-AM (640) in June. She said she felt so strongly that the sweeps should continue that she went on the station's website and found a link to Laning's campaign home page. Hvidston has since become a volunteer for the Laning campaign.

"It's in reaction to Joe Baca that I want to do this," she said.

But Baca has gained supporters too.

"He was very brave in standing up for the rights of immigrants," said Abel Medina, office manager for Hermandad Mexicana Nacional in Ontario. Medina added that the sweeps hurt the local economy and kept immigrants from going to work and taking their children to school.

Meanwhile, Baca, who has always enjoyed strong support from organized labor, has drawn the scorn of the leaders of the National Border Patrol Council, Local 1613, a 1,500-member union that represents the officers who conducted the sweeps.

The union leaders are upset that Baca and other Latino activists have accused the Border Patrol of using racial profiling.

The controversy has also been fanned by several Los Angeles talk-radio shows that have repeatedly railed against illegal immigrants and have reminded listeners that it was Baca who led the charge to stop the sweeps.

Baca and his staff have downplayed the controversy, saying it has caused little, if any, long-term political damage.

"The issue has been resolved," said Baca, a former state legislator first elected to Congress in 1999 after the death of Rep. George E. Brown Jr. "The only remaining controversy is from people that are angry that the sweeps have stopped."

Baca staff members conceded that their office received angry phone calls from supporters of the sweeps, but added that most of the calls have come from outside the congressman's district, so the opposition was unlikely to influence the election.

Baca remains the favorite, said UC Riverside political science professor Max Neiman.

The 43rd Congressional District, on the western end of San Bernardino County, is 51% Democrat and 32% Republican. Baca has collected more than $333,000 in campaign contributions, compared with about $20,000 for Laning, according to the most recent campaign statements.

But Neiman said the incident had demonstrated once again why many politicians try to stay clear of the topic of illegal immigration.

"There is this kernel of just incredible anger about immigration," he said. "It does have a potential for exploding."

The sweeps began in Ontario, Corona and Escondido in early June, headed by a newly trained Border Patrol unit based in Temecula. The sweeps spread fear and rumors in some heavily Latino communities where immigrants suspected more deportations would follow.

Soon after the sweeps began, Baca attended a community meeting in San Bernardino and told residents: "I am doing everything I can to make sure that sweeps like the ones last week do not happen again…. I will not stop until this situation has been resolved."

He also declared the sweeps illegal and accused the Border Patrol agents of overstepping their authority.

Baca and several other legislators in Washington discussed the sweeps with Asa Hutchinson, undersecretary for border and transportation security at the Department of Homeland Security. After the meeting, Hutchinson declared the sweeps a violation of agency policy and said future operations far from the border must be approved by the department.

Soon after, Baca declared victory and praised Hutchinson.

"I am glad that we could work together to resolve this crisis, and I hope in the future with better communication we can avoid this crisis again," Baca said in a prepared statement.

Baca has said that he favors enforcing the law but believes federal immigration authorities should instead hunt down employers who hire illegal immigrants. "Targeting individual, noncriminal undocumented immigrants is not the most effective way to use our resources," he said.

Representatives of the local Border Patrol union have defended themselves vehemently.

"To oppose Border Patrol operation in this instance is to basically not support the law," Joe Dassaro, president of Local 1613 said during an interview on KOGO-AM (600) in June.

"This is a situation we are running across more and more as illegal aliens become more prominent in certain key congressional districts."

Union leaders eventually started taking shots at Baca. Some of the harshest criticism has appeared on a union Internet billboard.

"Hopefully, you'll be elected out of office for your obvious lack of good sense and judgment," said one agent in a Web missive directed at Baca.

Joanne Peters, a Baca spokeswoman, said the union members who attacked the congressman are "loose cannons" who have been reprimanded by their superiors.

Asked to describe the union's relationship with Baca, Dassaro said he had been instructed to direct all questions about Baca to the union's national leadership. TJ Bonner, president of the National Border Patrol Council, declined to comment.

The National Border Patrol Council is a branch of the American Federation of Government Employees, which has contributed $3,000 to Baca's campaigns over the last five years.

While Laning says he hopes voters will remember the controversy in November, Baca's staff members predict it won't sway any voters.

"People already have their mind made up," said Peters, "and I don't think anyone is going to change their minds."