Chapter 13: The Border and Human Rights—A Testimony by Roberto L. Martinez

4. What kind of organizations were there working for immigrant rights in the 1980s?

In 1982 a group of Chicano activists formed the Coalition for a Just Immigration Policy to monitor the Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill. In November of 1983, I was hired by the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC). I created the U.S.-Mexico Border Program out of an existing AFSC project in San Diego. I had had lots of experience in fighting for civil and human rights.

Earlier that year, a friend and I had formed the Coalition for Law and Justice, to address both police and Border Patrol abuses. Police violence was rampant around the county, from Oceanside to Escondido, and from Encinitas to National City, with the San Diego Police Department leading the pack.

Responding to a need for protection, in the late 70s, the Centro de Asuntos Migratorios was created as the only non-profit, non-governmental organization to provide immigration services for low-income Latinos. Later, they played a key roll in registering undocumented immigrants, as well as farm workers, for amnesty under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA).

There was a great need for advocacy and someone to speak out about what was happening along the U.S.-Mexican border. Between 1984 and 1989 when the Border Crime Prevention Unit operated on the San Diego border, 23 migrants were killed and dozens more were injured by gunfire, including about a dozen children between the ages of 12 and 17. One of them was shot and killed by a gang of white vigilantes.

In 1986, the Coalition for Law and Justice organized the March for Justice and Equality at the border to protest both inhumane immigration policies, as well as human rights abuses at the border. Almost 2,000 people from around the Southwest participated in the march. It was the march, as well as dozens of press conferences, lawsuits and complaints that finally forced the Border Patrol and San Diego Police Department to disband the Border Crime Prevention Unit. They claimed that they didn’t like the perception that they were "trigger-happy."

There were other police interventions into border policy. In 1986 the Chief of the San Diego Police Department announced publicly that he was contemplating forming a joint foot patrol with the U.S. Border Patrol, because Border Patrol Chief, Gus De La Vina, convinced him that if it can work in El Paso, it can work here.

The Coalition for Just Immigration Policy called a meeting with Chief Kolender and convinced him it was a bad idea, because complaints we received in the American Friends Service Committee office claimed that when SDPD officers responded to a call, the first thing they would do if the caller was Mexican, was ask them for their "papers." We told the chief we didn’t want our people to be afraid to call the police, and if they saw the police walking with the Border Patrol, it would destroy any trust they had left in the police. Chief Kolender not only agreed to scrap the whole foot patrol idea, but we convinced him to adopt a new policy on when SDPD officers can and can’t hold a person for the Border Patrol, which exists to this day.