Mexican-Free School Zone
How the Minutemen created a controversy and drove mobile Mexican consulates out of the Capistrano Unified School District

On a brisk, sunny Saturday in early December, a volunteer with the local Mexican consulate office in Santa Ana set up a "mobile" consulate at an adult school in San Juan Capistrano. This was nothing new—the consulate had been invited to the school for years as part of its annual education fairs; on occasion, the consulate would also provide services for residents who couldn't make the trek to its Central County headquarters.

On that same Saturday, the Southern California chapter of Jim Gilchrist's Minuteman Project planned to protest the consulate's presence at the school.

"It's been awhile now that we've been giving attention to the mobile consulates. That and the day-laborer centers," says Minutewoman Lupe Moreno of the locations the anti-illegal-immigration group (which directs much of its wrath at Mexican immigrants) target for protests. The week before, the group had staged a protest against a mobile consulate at a Teamsters office in Orange.

The founder of Latin Americans for Immigration Reform, Moreno has voiced her opinions on Lou Dobbs' show and makes it a point to seek out mobile-consulate stations. "Citizens of the U.S. shouldn't be helping hold clinics that help illegal aliens in any way," the Moreno says. "I listen to Spanish radio and look through the newspaper. . . . We know what to look for."

At the English Language Development Center, the Minutemen showed up and "were greeted by someone who indicated she was a representative of the Mexican government," according to Minutewoman Debbie Craig.

That "representative" was volunteer Patricia Mariscal, who runs a nonprofit organization that has partnered with the consulate during the past five years to coordinate the mobile visits, according to the former Mexican consul in Santa Ana.

Craig says she was holding up her sign and protesting when she was told by Mariscal that she had to stop taking pictures and leave. "When I refused to stop taking pictures, she repeatedly pushed my camera into my face," she says.

In the days that followed, the Minutemen cast the dustup as an all-out assault; after the incident, supporters of the Minutemen were urged to call school-district offices to protest the "illegal presence of a foreign government on school grounds."

The group held a protest at a San Juan Capistrano City Council meeting in January calling for the expulsion of the consulate from the Capistrano Unified School District (CUSD) and the city.

The group's street protests of mobile consulates usually don't end there. Churches or businesses that host the mobile unit are usually subsequently bombarded with aggressive e-mails and phone calls calling for a termination of their relationship with the consulate. The Capistrano incident and its fallout neatly illustrate the group's strategy since the founding of its first incarnation in 2005: Create a controversy, complain loudly and urge the offending entity to act in their favor.

In San Juan Capistrano, the strategy seems to have worked. Within a few weeks of the protest, and following a fervent anti-consulate phone and e-mail campaign by the Minutemen, as well as the discovery by the district that the consulate had not filed the proper paperwork to be there that day, the consulate and the district came to a "mutual agreement," according to CUSD Superintendent Woodrow Carter, that effectively forbade them from providing services for Mexican immigrants at the school in the future.

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The Mobile Consulates area target of the Minuteman Project's ire, largely because of what Mexican citizens can obtain there: the matricula consular de alta seguridad (high-security consular registration), the picture ID given to Mexican nationals when they register with their local consulate. British, French, Argentine, Polish and dozens of other consulates offer and even encourage local registration by foreigners traveling or living abroad. The Mexican, Argentine, Guatemalan, Ecuadorian and Brazilian consulates issue ID cards following registration; Bolivia, Peru, Poland and other consulates are considering doing the same.

Mexico, with its 47 consulates in the U.S., gives out the most consular ID cards. Mexicans are required to present proof of Mexican nationality, identity and a local address before they can receive a matricula consular. According to the consulate's definition, the matricula is a picture ID for Mexicans who live abroad, an official document that is also accepted in Mexico. The IDs, which feature verification holograms and say nothing about—and have no bearing on—a person's immigration status in the host country, have been given out since 1870.

But these legal ID cards have become a point of contention because U.S. institutions and local governments increasingly accept them as valid forms of ID, regardless of the bearer's immigration status.

Although the matricula is not officially designated as a valid form of U.S. identification, the federal government has left it up to states and local governments to decide how and when to accept it as such. More than 160 banks and more than 1,100 police departments currently accept the matriculas. Police departments find them useful in getting people to come forward and report crimes, as well as for identifying people who have no other form of ID, according to a 2004 congressional report put out by the U.S. Government Accountability Office.

More than a dozen states also accept the matriculas as a valid ID to secure a driver's license. In late 2003, Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger repealed a law that would have permitted such a use in California.

"They're trying to colonize America. The Mexican consulate's office, the matricula card program is all part of the colonization of America," says Minuteman rally spokesperson Raymond Herrera, a Mexican-American Vietnam veteran with a croaky voice. Herrera says he can no longer work as a carpenter because employers hire illegal immigrants at lower pay.

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The details of the minutemen's attempt to stop the "colonization" of CUSD on Dec. 9 remain somewhat obscure. Around noon, after the Minutemen protest was under way, the police were called—on the Minutemen. According to the sheriff's department incident report, the unidentified "informant" who made the call reported that two female and two male protesters were inside the school being disruptive.

Craig, the Minutewoman who had been taking pictures, said tensions escalated when volunteer Mariscal attempted to prevent her from doing so. Mariscal is executive director of UNICO (United Communities), which made all the arrangements for the 100 mobile visits completed during the five years that Luis Miguel Ortiz Haro was Santa Ana's Mexican consul. Ortiz Haro says he personally attended every mobile visit made during his tenure—except for this one, which was attended by deputy consul Manuel Herrera Rábago because Ortiz Haro was out of town. "We had never had any problems," Ortiz Haro says.

Until that December day. "[Mariscal] was yelling and screaming as soon as I took the picture," Craig says. "She would stand in front of me with her open hand, and then the camera would come out and hit me in the face. . . I got a laceration on my face and I got a fat lip as a result of that."

When the sheriff's deputy arrived, he spoke with Mariscal and deputy consul Herrera Rábago inside the building, according to the incident report. Mariscal did not have the facilities-usage form issued by the district. Assistant Principal Greg Hartman was called; he confirmed that the consulate had permission to use the building. The Minutemen were told by the officer that they could continue with their protests.

The Minutemen's Herrera says the deputy told them that Mariscal had "diplomatic immunity," and therefore they believed they could not file an assault report, he says. Damon Micalizzi, spokesperson for the sheriff's department, says the deputy who responded to the call "did have a discussion with some of the Minutemen regarding immunity associated with foreign diplomats. The conversation was general in nature and not in reference to any specific person or any alleged assault."

Photographs of Mariscal, along with the Minutemen version of the story, soon made their way through the vast, loose network of anti-illegal-immigration organizations, even showing up on Phoenix and Las Vegas Craigslists under the banner, "Woman Assaulted by a Representative of the Mexican Government."

"To our utter amazement," read a narrative e-mail that was widely circulated, "Mariscal started to strike out at the Minutewoman! We were in a state of shock. As she yelled, she struck across the Minutewoman's lower right jaw and lip several times."

There is no confirmation of the alleged attack that set off the firestorm. Although pictures have circulated on the Internet and on YouTube depicting the moment just before Mariscal allegedly "lashed out" at Craig, neither she nor the Minutemen have provided pictures of the actual "assault" or of Craig's allegedly split lip.

According to the sheriff's department, the attending deputy, T. Spratt, "gave the parties his card with phone numbers they could use should they need him to come back for any reason. . . . At no time during the hour and 10 minutes he was there did anyone report an assault to him." Spratt was on duty until midnight, and "at no time did either party call to report any crime," the report states.

Mariscal laughs at the suggestion she attacked someone. "If that had happened, I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you. My lawyer would be on the phone with you," she says. "The Minutemen version of the story is simply that—their version." Mariscal declined to comment further for this story.

Mexican consulate representatives said the new consul, Carlos Rodriguez y Quezada, would not comment for this story.

Craig filed a subsequent police report on Feb. 8, once, she says, she confirmed that Mariscal, a U.S. resident, did not have diplomatic immunity. In the report, she alleges that Mariscal pushed Craig's camera into her face approximately "four times," which resulted in her split lip.

*     *     *

According to CUSD's Carter, the district and the adult school were bombarded with vitriolic e-mails and phone calls following the protest. "There was a safety concern," he says.

Reports of the Minutemen protests, with pictures and quotes, are crucial to the dissemination of their message: Illegal immigrants cause nothing but crime and trouble. The widely circulated narratives cast the Minutemen as heroes who often alert an unsuspecting institution to the crimes being committed on their church or school grounds by a "corrupt foreign government."

"The amount of hate mail and derogatory comments that has been directed at our school district and at the school is, No. 1, unnecessary and, No. 2, unneeded at this time," says Carter.

CUSD trustee Anna Bryson received a call from Minutewoman Moreno just after the protest; she says she immediately went to the superintendent. "I was taking issue with the fact that it wasn't approved in an appropriate way," says Bryson of the consulate's presence at the adult school. Carter discovered that the consulate had not applied for a Facilities Joint Use Agreement, which would have been processed between the district, the school site and the consulate, he says. The consulate had received verbal permission from the school's principal long before Carter became superintendent, which has not been an uncommon practice in the past for other organizations, Carter says.

"The board policy that we have on joint-use facilities has been loosely applied and loosely enforced in years past," he says, adding that last fall, the district began an overhaul of the system to ensure proper protocols would be followed for any organization wishing to rent school grounds.

Within a matter of days, Bryson says, the superintendent dealt with the issue.

"The district and the consulate came to the mutual agreement not to hold services on school grounds anymore," Carter says. The decision was prompted, in part, he says, by the number of complaints the district and the school received. "We continue to receive some very intensely worded e-mails and letters and phone calls about this alleged incident, and it does concern me." The decision had nothing to do with the consulate's activities, Carter says.

District spokeswoman Beverly DeNicola says she spoke with Mariscal—who had always been the district's contact—about no longer having the mobile consulates at CUSD schools. Deputy consul Herrera Rábago declined to comment on previous incidents, but he did say the mobile consulates will now be handled directly by the consulate and will not involve any outside organizations, such as Mariscal's, to facilitate the visits.

On Feb. 11, before a district board meeting, both Carter and Bryson were perplexed by the Minuteman press conference staged in front of district headquarters. "What we're going to demand today is that they do not allow a foreign government to conduct foreign affairs on school grounds. [The Mexicans] have consulate offices, they have their buildings assigned to them by the federal government, and it does not include school grounds," Herrera said outside CUSD's San Juan Capistrano headquarters.

The small, familiar knot of local Minutemen gathered half an hour before the meeting. They held signs that featured enlarged images of Mariscal and read, "Deport Patricia Mariscal" and, "Illegal Aliens are Not Immigrants." Herrera, Craig and Moreno all took the podium, each denouncing the consulate and the school district. The group occasionally chanted in Spanish for the Univision camera and waved American flags. They issued a list of demands for the school district, which included a written declaration from CUSD stating their intent to prohibit a foreign government from conducting foreign affairs on school grounds and a written apology for the assault. "We're also going to reveal the name of the assailant," Herrera said.

But the district had informed the Minutemen back in December that the consulate was no longer going to be setting up its mobile consulate on school grounds. "We immediately found that there was no record and did what we would have had to do with any other organization—with the Girl Scouts, with anyone who didn't follow appropriate protocol," Bryson says about the termination of the mobile consulate's campus privileges. "And it should have stopped there because the problem was handled.

"[The Minutemen] came and acted as if nothing had been done," Bryson continues. "I had told Lupe [Moreno], 'If you have any other questions, please just call me.' She never called me back. I think, at some point, maybe the publicity began to be attractive to them because we rectified it immediately."

Carter says he had been informed that the group would be coming to a January meeting to express their gratitude for the district's handling of the situation. The group postponed their press conference until February, but the protest was uncalled for, says Carter. "I currently have no plans to meet the requests that the speakers gave to us two weeks ago," he says. "We have no knowledge that anything was ever done illegally by the consulate. They were assisting parents of our students and other adults in our community."

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The Capo incident wasn't the first protest of the mobile consulates, and it likely won't be the last. And the Minutemen's tactics are nothing if not consistent. The e-mail detailing the protests held infront of an Orange Teamsters office a week before the protest at the adult school in December infuriated local Teamsters president Michael Davis. "They gave my name and my telephone number, and it wasn't even my local. We got a lot of phone calls and letters when it first happened. Some people that called up were not only downright derogatory, but also filthy," he says. "Unfortunately a lot of people, when they see it on the Internet, even if it's wrong information, they believe it anyway."

On March 31, 2007, the Minutemen held a protest outside the Presbyterian Church of the Covenant in Costa Mesa, which had planned to host the mobile consulate that Saturday afternoon. Church pastor Tim McCalmont says the congregation agreed this was a good way for the church to help out the Hispanic community living nearby.

"We had talked to the Costa Mesa police, and they felt that was a good idea because it gives them a way of identifying people," he says of the matriculas. McCalmont says he received some angry phone calls and a visit by a local Minuteman prior to the event. A few days before the event, the consulate notified McCalmont that they would not be sending the mobile consulate after all because there was word that police would be there to supervise and they were worried people would not show up, McCalmont says. The church arranged for transportation to the Santa Ana consulate for those who arrived.

On the day of the event, "the Minutemen came, and the police came and stood at a safe distance and made sure things were safe," says McCalmont. "They kept order; the Minutemen did their thing, made some noise, caused a lot of cars to honk. It really went off without incident."

According to the Minutemen's version of the event, which was circulated nationally via a Web dispatch titled, "Minutemen Scare Off Mexican Consulate," the consulate left at 1 p.m., two hours before their scheduled departure of 3 p.m. "The consulate wasn't even there," says McCalmont. The dispatch also claimed "the church leaders stated they had been mislead [sic] about the nature of the event, and members of the congregation expressed concern over the presence of the mobile Mexican consulate."

"We weren't misled at all; we knew exactly what we were doing," McCalmont says. "We did a lot of background study on this . . . and wanted to make sure we weren't doing anything illegal." He says the church would consider hosting the consulate again.

"We just kind of got caught in the middle. The Minutemen have an agenda," McCalmont says. "I don't think they really understood what was happening. They felt we were giving people who were here illegally an opportunity to duck the system. And that certainly was not the case. The police wouldn't have been here if it was."

Former Mexican consul Ortiz Haro, who left his post in early January, says the Minutemen have not stopped following him since the incidents at CUSD and at the Teamsters office, protesting regularly during his last days at the consulate, as well as at a recent Orange County Hispanic Bar Association dinner, at which he was honored. He says he was out of town at the end of December and did not have the conversation with the school district that terminated all future use of the adult school.

"I don't know what the status is now, but I hope the permanent termination of services there isn't a reality," he says. "I hope the consulate does not stop going because many people down south need them."

"One has to act. This is an issue of attending to the community," he says. "What were there, seven or eight people protesting? How can they put a stop to a service that helps 500 people at a time?"

daltan@ocweekly.com

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