Tensions rise in immigration fight
Fremont group faces charge of racism during protest
By Jonathan Jones and Chris De Benedetti, STAFF WRITERS

DAVID SANDER of the East Bay Coalition for Border Security (left) and Toufic Haddad, a counter-protester, clash Friday during an immigration reform protest at the corner of Mowry Avenue and Fremont Boulevard. (Anda Chu - Staff)

FREMONT — They taunted. They screamed. They waved American flags.
On Friday evening during rush-hour traffic, emotions on the immigration debate boiled over at the intersection of Mowry Avenue and Fremont Boulevard.

On one side, a group of roughly 35 local residents from the Tri-City area gathered, holding signs that read: "No Amnesty," "Secure the Borders Now" and "No Racists Here."

Next to them another group, twice their size, also gathered at the intersection, chanting into a bullhorn, waving signs that read: "No to the racist minute-men," and "No human being is illegal." Until recently, the passionate debate about immigration reform in Fremont involved subtle tensions in residential neighborhoods, school walkouts, small demonstrations and occasional comments to the local news media.

But the passions have intensified after a group of residents recently formed the East Bay Coalition for Border Security, a Fremont group that favors immigration reform and opposes amnesty for illegal workers.

This week, advocates for illegal immigrants struck back. Using contacts formed as part of the May 1st Coalition, organizers reached out through e-mails and fliers at BART stations, urging people to come to the intersection near the Fremont Hub to counter-protest against what they described as "the racists in our own backyard."

The protests come as Congress tries to reconcile House and Senate immigration and border security bills. While the Senate bill provides a pathway for citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been here five years or more, and creates a temporary guest-worker program, the House bill provides no such provisions and makes it a felony to be an illegal immigrant or to assist one.

Members of the East Bay Coalition for Border Security bristled at the other side's accusing chants of racism.

"Of course, anything that is disagreeable to them is racist," said Charles Dirkman, a Fremont resident and coalition co-founder.

Dirkman, a 25-year-old college student, called the counter-protesters "just a real motley collection of the political far left. They conflate issues, and their thoughts are based on false premises."

"They're slandering us," said Dave Sander, the coalition's sergeant-at-arms. The Fremont resident said the counter-protesters were distorting his group's point of view, adding that many of his anti-amnesty peers also share the left-wing protesters' disapproval of President Bush.

"If the KKK or the Nazis were here, I'd be on the (counter-protesters') side," Sander said. "But it's not a racist thing. It's an American thing. We're against illegal immigration, not legal immigration.

"They're calling us Minutemen, but we're not. We haven't even joined that group."

Dirkman and the coalition's leaders, including co-founder Casey Fargo, a 25-year-old Livermore resident who works in Fremont, will speak with Fremont police officers before planning another rally.

"We're not intimidated, but we don't want to strain the Fremont police's resources. People from Berkeley will," Dirkman said. "We've had counter-protesters before and it's been peaceful, but this is a completely different element coming from Berkeley or San Francisco. They're more into confrontational politics."

Amelia Powers, a 19-year-old from Fredonia, Kan., watched the heated rally with astonishment during her first visit to California. Powers sat with the anti-amnesty group that was holding a sign that read "Si, se puede aprender Ingles" (Yes, you can learn English) — a variation of the longtime pro-Latino slogan.

"In Kansas, there are no protests,"



Powers said.

Unlike the May 1 protest, the counter-protest consisted mostly of white men and women in their 20s and 30s such as James Illingsworth, a 26-year-old from Santa Cruz, who stood outside the Barnes and Noble bookstore handing out fliers.

Like many others involved in the counter-protest, Illingsworth is part of the International Socialist Organization, which along with the Green Party and the Transport Workers Solidarity Committee drew supporters from throughout the Bay Area.

Oakland resident Jessie Muldoon, a 36-year-old organizer, said she was not surprised by the lack of Latinos at the protests.

"I think it would have been more confrontational for them," she said.

Muldoon said those who came to Fremont wanted to show that they're not ready to shy away from a fight about reforming immigration. Many also said they supported amnesty for illegal workers.

Jose Carlos, a 49-year-old postal worker who came from Hayward as part of the May 1st Coalition, called the East Bay Coalition "a bunch of racists who have nothing better to do than hate immigrants."

Despite tensions and more than 15 police officers standing guard, there were no major confrontations during

Charles Dirkman of the Coalition (right) tries to get his point across to Somerset Stevens (left) and members of the International Socialist Organization, part of the counter-protest movement. (Anda Chu - Staff)

the two hours of heated protest.

A few even tried to engage in debates, an exercise in futility.

As he crossed the northwest corner, Dirkman approached 28-year-old Anna Matshke to tell her she was helping to create an open border with Mexico and helping to burden an already overloaded health system.

"I know that as the immigration movement gets stronger, they'll also get stronger," said Matshke, referring to the East Bay Coalition for Border Security. "So we want to bring attention to our organizations and let people know there's a way to be connected and stop them from winning people to their side."

As both groups gained in size, Faisal Fekri, a 14-year-old Centerville student, pulled up on his bicycle, then grabbed a picket sign, as 40-year-old Joe Jacobs, a member of the East Bay Coalition for Border Security, waved a cowbell in his face.

"I wanted to punch that guy in the face, but the cops were around," Fekri said afterward. "We're all immigrants. We've all come from other countries."

About 6 p.m., some of the counter-protesters dug into Domino's pizza that they said had been donated, as Todd Chretien, a Green Party candidate for U.S. Senate, campaigned against what he sees as the government's betrayal in the Senate and House bills.

"We live in a very diverse community," said John Gallagher, a 32-year-old fourth-grade school teacher at Forest Park Elementary School. "Blaming immigrants for this country's problems does not make for a great community."

Across the street, Mansoor Hai, a 21-year-old Afghan immigrant living in Dublin, stood outside, sipping a Jamba Juice, appearing dumbfounded.

"I don't know what's going on," said Hai as he pointed across the street at the two sides bunched together and yelling at each other. "Are those people pro-immigration or anti-immigration?"