Wildfire report incomplete, civil rights groups say

Wildfirereport incomplete, civil rights groups say

9 March 2008

published by www.signonsandiego.com

San Diego, USA — A report that San Diego Mayor Jerry Sanders released Feb.25 on the city’s response to the October wildfires is prompting complaints fromtwo civil rights groups, which say the report failed to address shortcomingsinvolving minorities’ access to services during the fires and afterward.

The American Civil Liberties Union has requested a meeting with Sanders’ officeto discuss the city’s “After Action” report.

“We want to make sure the mayor understands that in fact people were turnedaway from the evacuation center, that they did not hear the emergency calls in alanguage they could understand, that they were questioned by law enforcement andcity officials about their immigration status,” said Andrea Guerrero, fieldand policy director for the ACLU of San Diego and Imperial Counties.

The ACLU cited a statement in the city’s report about the Qualcomm Stadiumshelter that said, “No person was denied access or services and few questionswere asked of people coming to seek shelter.”

The city report also cites the success of the county’s automated warning-callsystem, but it does not address concerns about the calls having gone out inEnglish only. It does acknowledge a lack of translators during thedisaster.

Recently, the American Friends Service Committee issued a statement citingconcerns similar to those of the ACLU.

Both groups met with San Diego police officials after the fires to discussvarious complaints. One involved the case of an undocumented Mexican familyarrested at the stadium and deported after police, suspecting family members oflooting, alerted the U.S. Border Patrol.

Fred Sainz, a spokesman for Sanders, said the city “would welcome continueddialogue with groups that take exception to our action, but we think we actedcorrectly.”

Sainz said there were no rules of protocol violated in police questioning thefamily and contacting immigration authorities.

San Diego police do not typically ask individuals for their immigrationstatus, but when someone is suspected of a crime, “if they are asked foridentification and they can’t provide what would prove them to be in thiscountry legally, the existing policy allows us to go ahead and call” U.S.Customs and Border Protection, Sainz said.

Pedro Rios of the American Friends Service Committee said the family’s arrest– along with the presence of Border Patrol agents in a nonenforcement capacity– frightened some evacuees who were in the country illegally, prompting themto leave the stadium.

Both groups have said that in the event of another disaster, they would likeevacuees to feel safe regardless of immigration status.

Sainz said that while it might have looked as if officials were checking forevacuees’ legal residence, “we were not.”

Shelter volunteers did not initially ask for identification. According to thereport, with no formal registration process at the stadium, “the entire entrywas very ad hoc.” Volunteers began asking for identification shortly beforethe shelter closed.

“We were trying to understand what people’s needs were, what part of thecity or county they were from,” Sainz said.

During and after the fires, some immigrants complained of problems. A youngLatina mother camped at the stadium said that after the deportation incident,volunteers eyed her suspiciously when she requested diapers for her baby,handing her a few while she observed a white mother receiving an entire package.

A 46-year-old legal resident returning to her Fallbrook home said she wasasked for her green card by a law enforcement officer at a roadblock.

An ACLU report released after the fires cited other incidents, including oneinvolving a 19-year-old Filipino-American volunteer at the stadium who wasevicted after being accused of stealing; the volunteer said he had been helpingevacuees carry supplies to their cars.

Guerrero said the purpose of requesting another meeting is to avoid servicegaps in future disaster situations.

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