Monday’s bashing of two illegal immigrants by Riverside County sheriff’s deputies after a high-speed chase has stoked the fiery immigration debate which has polarized much of California and the nation.
Tuesday, no less than 15 human rights organizations in Los Angeles condemned the beatings - videotaped by a TV news helicopter and broadcast repeatedly throughout the Americas - and called for a federal investigation.
The FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Mexican consul general’s office and the Los Angeles and Riverside sheriff’s departments all are investigating the incident, which unfolded Monday after a rickety pickup crammed with 19 illegal immigrants dodged a Border Patrol checkpoint near Temecula, about 60 miles north of the border.
Many immigrants’ rights advocates said Monday’s beatings symbolize the immigrant-bashing atmosphere that exists in California - much like the 1991 stomping of African-American Rodney King by Los Angeles County sheriff’s deputies became a symbol of police racism and brutality.
“We condemn the atmosphere that creates a license for these types of abuses,” said Bobbi Murray, communications director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrants Rights of Los Angeles (CHIRLA).
CHIRLA, in a report titled “Hate Unleashed: Los Angeles in the Aftermath of 187,” claims abuse of immigrants - including hate crimes and police brutality - has increased since November 1994, when California voters passed Proposition 187, a measure designed to keep illegal immigrants from getting public education or medical care.
Felix De La Torre, a Sacramento analyst for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), said he was sickened by the beating but added, “We’re not really surprised, with the anti-immigrant climate fostered by our governor and others. By their rhetoric, they’ve almost dehumanized immigrants and made it OK to mistreat people. Once that chase ended they (Riverside County deputies) quit being law enforcement officers and became vigilantes.”
Gov. Pete Wilson - who has blamed many of California’s ills on illegal immigrants - Tuesday condemned the beatings, saying, “From the videotape, it certainly seems that excessive force was used … that conduct can’t be tolerated.”
So did the INS’s deputy director for the Los Angeles area, Rosemary Melville. “We deplore the beating and the chase as well as the beating.”
Monday afternoon, the pickup truck led Riverside County sheriff’s deputies on 70 mile chase that reached speeds of 100 mph. The pickup reportedly sideswiped several motorists during the chase, which ended in Los Angeles County.
About 10 miles east of Los Angeles, the pickup stopped on the shoulder of the Pomona Freeway. Seventeen illegal immigrants, all men, scattered and were rounded up by different law enforcement agencies. But the woman in the passenger seat, Leticia Gonzalez-Gonzalez, 32, said “she was grabbed out of the car by her hair by an officer in a beige uniform and beaten eight or nine times about her face, her back and her legs with a nightstick until she started fading,” said one of her attorneys, David Spivak.
The videotape shows a Caucasian sheriff’s deputy, swinging his baton like a baseball bat, clubbing a man believed to be Gonzalez-Gonzalez’s common-law husband, Andrian Flores Martinez, 26, six times about the neck, arms and shoulders as Martinez crumpled to the ground. The same deputy is shown bashing Gonzalez-Gonzalez three times, then grabbing her by the hair and throwing her to the ground, where another deputy clubs her.
Neither immigrant seemed to be resisting arrest. Both were bruised, Melville said.
Riverside County sheriff’s deputies Tracy Watson and Kurtis Franklin have been suspended without pay.
Allan Parachini, spokesman for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California, said the bashing spotlights not only how immigrants are treated by law enforcement, but also police pursuit behavior: “What we call high speed syndrome … either crashing cars that hurt or kill innocent people or officers getting such high adrenaline levels going that they literally can’t stop, they mete out street justice on people even if those people aren’t trying to resist or escape.”
Not everyone condemned the actions of the Riverside County deputies.
Ron Prince, co-author of Proposition 187, said, “Hopefully, it sends a message that we do not want more illegal immigration to California.” By trying to dump the camper shell in the path of pursuing officers, and then ramming innocent motorists, the illegal immigrants were guilty of assault with a deadly weapon, Prince contended. “It’s certainly not for lack of trying that the illegals didn’t kill anyone on that freeway.”
Prince said the officers were justified in using force to take the two immigrants into custody because “they did not get down on the ground as they were ordered to do … some of this is hyperbole on the part of political interests trying to make as much out of this as possible. If somebody on that freeway had been killed, then would we have heard form all the bleeding hearts for all the illegals saying they were forced to kill someone in order to escape?”
But Robert Lovato, executive director of the Central American Resource Center of Los Angeles, said, “The bottom line to all this is justice. Let’s just cut out all the garbage about how ‘those illegals deserve it’ and what Pete Wilson and Pat Buchanan have been spewing out. The real issue is police reform and the anti-immigrant climate that has allowed them to do this disgusting thing.
‘From the moment they started bashing that woman … this issue no longer had to do with the undocumented or documented status of these people,” Lovato said. “Laws on the books say everybody has basic civil and human rights that can’t be violated. Their legal status was completely irrelevant. What’s the status of those deputies - how did they get their green card, or whatever license they have to beat up people?”