A Small Group Wields Big Influence in San Juan Capistrano

When the City Council approved these signs -- restricting overnight parking on Camino Capistrano -- it was was an early indicator of the influence of SJC Americans, a grassroots political action group. The group and members of the council say the ordinance was to crack down on perceived blight and overcrowding of the street. Photo by: Adam Elmahrek.

When the City Council approved these signs -- restricting overnight parking on Camino Capistrano -- it was was an early indicator of the influence of SJC Americans, a grassroots political action group. The group and members of the council say the ordinance was to crack down on perceived blight and overcrowding of the street. Photo by: Adam Elmahrek.

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Monday, June 15, 2010 | A small, fiercely anti-illegal-immigration group has wielded significant power in San Juan Capistrano in recent years, influencing decisions at City Hall ranging from parking ordinances to the lease of city-owned property.

The group calls itself the SJC Americans. Its goal is to dismantle what it considers sanctuary conditions in the city that encourage undocumented immigrants to break the law and abuse the welfare system.

Others in the community, including Latino residents, say SJC Americans has pushed through ordinances with racist intentions and conjured up support through misinformation — and intimidation — of the council and the community.

The group formed in early 2008 to stop the lease of the city-owned old fire station complex to the Community Health Enrichment Collaborative, which provides a variety of services to low-income residents including application assistance for Medi-Cal and food stamps.

SJC Americans failed to convince the council back then that CHEC was undeserving of a lease in a city-owned building because it was assisting illegal immigrants to take advantage of social services. But that was before their influence grew.

Now it’s looking as though SJC Americans has succeeded in driving CHEC out of the Mission Flats neighborhood where it’s located. CHEC decided not to pursue another two-year lease and instead will ask for a month-by-month lease until it can secure another location away from the neighborhood.

“My assumption is that the lies they were telling — we brought a light to it, and now they can’t get away with it,” said Kim McCarthy, one of SJC Americans’ most vocal members.

For their part, CHEC officials say the unfriendly political climate had nothing to do with their decision and that they just need a bigger office.

The story of CHEC, which involves organizations like Mission Hospital and Mission Basilica San Juan Capistrano, is one example of how SJC Americans has managed to influence city politics and policies.

The group also managed to push the city into implementing E-Verify, a database service that validates the Social Security numbers of city employees. It also played a role in a council election that unseated former Mayor Joe Soto, who was seen as sympathetic to the Latino community.

And recently, SJC Americans pushed through new parking policies on Camino Capistrano. Some cheered that effort, saying the group helped clean up blight in the area. But it also led to accusations of racism from the city’s Latino community.

The city is “racist, 100 percent racist,” said Alberto Fernandez, a resident in one of the housing complexes off Camino Capistrano.

Fernandez says the parking ordinance specifically targeted Latinos. It was pushed through by the city’s now-disbanded Community Issues Committee, which was composed of some SJC Americans members as well as councilmen Londres Uso and Sam Allevato.

Felipe Rodriguez, a former resident of a condominium complex known as Casitas Capistrano, said he was so fed up with the restricted parking that he moved away from his mother’s house at the Casitas — away from his young children — to Mission Viejo.

The parking ordinance made life “much more difficult,” Rodriguez said.

SJC Americans member and co-founder Tony Brown said the parking ordinance proposal “had nothing to do with ethnicity.”

Brown blamed the parking problem on what he called “hotbedding” — when too many people live in a condo built for a few. He said the practice and the subsequent parking problem was creating “public safety issues” and “a certain amount of blight.”

Uso agrees with Brown. He said the parking ordinances had nothing to do with the fact that the area is Latino and everything to do with the blight and overcrowding of the street.

“I don’t care if those people had been German farmers,” Uso said. “It had nothing to do with race, creed or color — it had to do with the fact that Camino Capistrano looked like hell.”

Much of the group’s influence comes through its writings — particularly McCarthy’s column — which were formerly in the Capistrano Dispatch but have since moved to the newsletter Capistrano Common Sense. McCarthy said her column was particularly effective against CHEC.

Allevato and members of SJC Americans say SJC Americans has managed to convince residents in the Mission Flats neighborhood, where CHEC has its office, that the organization has no business operating out of the city-owned building.

But not everyone is convinced that the claims made in the newsletter are accurate.

“There are facts. Then there are a bunch of things that are editorializing. And then there is a bunch of innuendo — and a bunch of things that appear to be made up,” Councilman Mark Nielsen said.

CHEC is scrambling to secure another location elsewhere in the city and has yet to find one. A staff report from Karen Crocker, the city’s community services director, says that staff does not recommend giving CHEC the month-by-month lease it has requested.

Crocker said she believes CHEC decided not to pursue a two-year agreement because the organization knew it wouldn’t have support from the council.

“If the residents don’t want CHEC there, I don’t want to continue that battle,” Crocker said.

CHEC isn’t the only organization SJC Americans has targeted.

Recently, a Latino community services organization known as CREER attempted to secure a license agreement for a 284-square-foot office space adjacent to Stonefield, one of the historic areas of the city.

CREER officials say the organization provides services beneficial to the community — such as after-school tutoring, a gang prevention program and teaching English as a second language. SJC Americans, however, says CREER actively promotes illegal immigration.

“The people are very confused about what community is,” McCarthy said at a recent council meeting. “Community is not the advancement of one race.”

Among other accusations, SJC Americans said CREER and CHEC sponsored an immigration forum in July 2008 — which was attended by Orange County Sheriff’s Department deputies — that taught undocumented immigrants how to avoid deportation and take advantage of services they aren’t eligible for. The group also claimed a Democratic Party representative was registering undocumented immigrants to vote.

SJC Americans’ Brown said he knew the forum was to assist illegal immigrants because it was mostly in Spanish.

The message from the parties at the forum — including CHEC, CREER and the Sheriff’s Department — is that “we know you’re here, and we’re going to help you stay here,” Brown said.

But CREER denied the accusations, and when Uso questioned CREER leaders from the dais at a recent meeting, they said CREER does not support illegal immigration and that it doesn’t help undocumented immigrants find sanctuary in the city.

“You’ve got some uninformed people saying some uninformed things,” CREER Executive Director Richard Ybarra said.

Lt. Mike Betzler — who was chief of police services when the forum was held — said he would do some research on the forum and the accusations. He has yet to return phone calls seeking the information.

But the Orange County Human Relations Commission — which provided leadership training to CHEC — said the forum provided nothing that residents didn’t already have access to.

Although the council signed off on the license agreement for CREER — rebuffing SJC Americans’ wishes — the group did manage to persuade the city to keep an eye on the organization.

It appears that no matter what the truth is about CREER, SJC Americans’ influence could mean the end of another community services organization.

“This is very tense right now,” said Councilwoman Laura Freese at a recent council meeting. “We are looking very closely at things — and if we have to, we’ll pull the plug.”

Please contact Adam Elmahrek directly at aelmahrek@voiceofoc.org and follow him on Twitter: twitter.com/adamelmahrek. And add your voice with a letter to the editor.

Correction: Because of an editing error, an earlier version of this story said that San Juan Capistrano Councilman Sam Allevato and members of CHEC belived SJC Americans were influential with Mission Flats residents. It should have said that Allevato and SJC Americans believed SJC Americans had been influential.



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