Hall: Escondido chief explains city's illegal immigration policy

Written by
Matthew T. Hall
8:28 p.m., June 26, 2012

Escondido Police Chief Jim Maher hopes his department’s illegal immigration policy, which has federal officials working alongside his officers, becomes a national model for law-enforcement agencies.

First, he has to help locals understand it better.

A different approach withered in the Arizona heat Monday when the U.S. Supreme Court rejected three parts of that state’s immigration law but upheld, for now, a provision that allows officers to ask about a person’s legal status during routine stops.

Looking for a local angle, I called Maher in Escondido to see if he’d document the city’s longtime debate over illegal immigration. He did.

At 56, Maher has been with the department for 32 years, the last six as chief. A former Camp Pendleton Marine, he settled in Escondido in 1980, raised three children in the city and then moved to Riverside County in 1995.

Traffic on Interstate 15 flows pretty fast, so he can get to work in about 35 minutes — without speeding. “It’d be worse for me to get a ticket than anybody else,” he said. “Kind of embarrassing, especially in a city car.”

Two weeks ago, an officer randomly stopped that silver sedan of Maher’s during one of the city’s common and contentious daytime checkpoints. Unlike sobriety stops at night, Escondido’s daytime blockades are officially designed so the department can verify that drivers have valid licenses and auto insurance. Officers stop up to seven cars at a time.

Critics argue that these checkpoints target and intimidate the undocumented, but Maher said officers simply count cars, as they did when he was No. 7.

“What I know is they’re just looking at the cars, and it doesn’t matter if you’re white or Latino or Asian or black or whatever,” Maher said.

He is quick to blame “activists” and “the media” for spreading misconceptions about his department. He shared, then scoffed that his critics compare him to Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., a national lightning rod for his hard line against illegal immigration.

“If they really knew what our policy was, they’d go, ‘Whoa, wait a minute, that’s what we want everybody to do. We don’t want them going after illegals. We just want them getting the stinking criminals out of here,’” Maher said. “The idea that Escondido is a divided city and has racist sentiments is just not true.”

Yet that’s exactly some people’s perception of the place. “You could stand on a street corner in San Diego and ask people, and they would tell you, ‘Escondido, they’re the anti-Latino city,’” Maher said.

There are lots of reasons why.

Because nearly half of its 144,000 residents are Hispanic, but Escondido has elected only two Latinos to the City Council in its 124 years.

Because the first council member — in 1992 — didn’t mention his Mexican heritage or that his surname had been changed from Carreras to Cameron.

Because in 2006, the council proposed and then abandoned a law that would have punished landlords for renting to illegal immigrants.

Because in 2010, three federal immigration agents began working in the police station in an unprecedented partnership that now involves 11 Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.

Because last year, Escondido Disposal Inc. fired more than 50 of its 200 workers when a federal audit discovered they were some of the 35,000 illegal immigrants whom the mayor estimates live in the city.

Maher traces the hot-button immigration debate to the rental ordinance.

“That tagged us with the activists,” he said. “They made us ground zero for the illegal immigration issue, and they have said from day one that Latinos would be afraid to live in Escondido. Yet our Latino population increases. In fact, it’s gotten to the point now where most of the tips we get from the community about criminal aliens — and we do get a pretty good share of tips — come from members of those immigrant communities.”

Two years into “Operation Joint Effort” with ICE, Escondido has arrested more than 800 illegal immigrants — immigration fugitives, people with a criminal history and those who were previously deported and came back.

“America has enough of its own criminals,” Maher said. “We really don’t need criminals from another country, and that’s what our goal is — to remove them.”

He emphasized that his focus is on illegal immigrants with criminal records.

“We truly have the right policy for local law enforcement,” he said. “The folks who are here illegally that are just trying to raise their kids, keep a job, get a better life, they figured out we’re not the problem. We’re not after them. We’re after their neighbors that are stealing cars, selling drugs, committing robberies, etc. That’s why they’ve come to work with us.”

His department’s immigration policy operates on two principles, he said.

“No. 1, we’re here to protect everybody regardless of their immigration status. No. 2, if you commit a crime, we’ll do whatever it takes to get you out of the community, including working with (federal) immigration.”

Whether that’s a 1-2 punch the nation will get behind remains to be seen.

Hall: Escondido chief explains city's illegal immigration policy | UTSanDiego.com