"We can't even drive at night anymore," says Omar, who declined to give his last name. He's a resident of El Modena, the historic barrio in unincorporated Orange that has seen an influx of immigrants from the Mexican state of Veracruz (most undocumented) over the past 20 years to supplement ElMo's longstanding Chicano community.
We're standing at the Village Center Shopping Plaza, where dozens of jornaleros stand around looking for work. Almost all have the same story as Omar: In the past month, the Orange County Sheriff's Department (OCSD), which services El Modena, has conducted random pull-overs with no other intention than to find unlicensed drivers--and thus be able to deport illegal immigrants.
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Omar, who works as a general laborer in good times, a jornalero in bad, says the deputies patrol the barrio at night, with a specific focus on Hewes Street, El Modena's main drag. "My brother-in-law was driving home from work when a sheriff pulled him over," he says in Spanish. "He didn't have a criminal record, had never broken any law. But because he didn't have a license, he got a ticket. Hundreds of dollars. Now, he's scared he'll get deported."
"A mi hermano también," says another jornalero. My brother, too. Other men nod in agreement.
Lieutenant Bob Wren, head of OCSD's North Patrol unit in charge of El Modena, denies the charges. "That's not probable cause for a stop," says Wren, noting that what the men accuse his department of doing is against department procedure. The department doesn't engage in pull-overs "just for the purpose" of catching unlicensed drivers, Wren says.
The El Modena men remain unconvinced. They're looking for a civil-rights group to contact and help them out. Paging Los Amigos . . .