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Back in 1980, Border Patrol chased down undocumented immigrants from an office in SLO

Jesus Ramirez Rivera, 25, waits in a Border Patrol van after being detained in San Luis Obispo for the second time in two weeks in March 1980.
Jesus Ramirez Rivera, 25, waits in a Border Patrol van after being detained in San Luis Obispo for the second time in two weeks in March 1980. The Tribune

Political theater requires actors, villains and heroes — cardboard cutouts placed on their marks.

Dialog today often consists of lines that fit on a bumper sticker or tweet, like “Build the wall.”

Newly released data from the Department of Homeland Security shows illegal border crossings are down, with arrests at the lowest point since 1971. However, immigration arrests in the nation’s interior are up 25 percent.

Life is more complex than tweets. Almost four decades after the following story was written, many of the same themes are still valid, though there are a few updates.

The Border Patrol station in San Luis Obispo was closed and torn down as resources were reallocated to the Mexican border.

The North American Free Trade Agreement exported some jobs from the United States to Mexico, making immigration to “el norte” less attractive to some.

Farm employers locally report that there is a smaller pool of workers as border enforcement increased over the last few years.

In 1980, reporter Ann Fairbanks, who was born and raised in Mexico and was equally comfortable interviewing U.S. congressmen or Mexican farmworkers, produced a four-part series on immigration.

She spent five months interviewing dozens of sources, resulting in stories with nuance that did not settle for canned applause lines.

“Illegal Aliens,” the title used for the four-part series, is now out of favor in the immigrant community.

This was the final installment in the series, published May 16, 1980:

Hispanic view: Human rights have to win out

“Just because they don’t have working papers doesn’t mean they don’t have rights. We’re all human beings.

“We can say we’re here rich. They come because they have great needs. They leave their families in order to support their children. Human rights have to win out.”

A leading member of Paso Robles’ Hispanic community so described her feelings about undocumented workers, adding that she’d be “delighted” if an open border were declared, allowing free passage to all between the United States and Mexico.

“That way we’d get back what belongs to us,” she said.

The feelings among Hispanics concerning their Mexican brothers and sisters span from the open border concept of this woman, who asked to remain anonymous, to admittedly mixed feelings to a strong conviction that the steady migration of undocumented workers must stop.

“I have very, very mixed feelings,” said a Nipomo woman who asked not to be identified. “There’s so much poverty in Mexico. They’re human beings, and I don’t care if they have a piece of paper saying they’re here legally or not.”

“But then it’s very, very true that we’re paying high taxes. It’s really not fair to us.”

The individual who crosses the border trying to scratch out a living for his family is not the real culprit, said David Sanchez, manager of a Nipomo avocado orchard who moved to the United States from his native Veracruz 37 years ago.

But if the flow is unchecked, that one individual combined with thousands of others creates problems for himself, his counterparts and all American and legally residing workers. “There has to be some control,” Sanchez said. “The influx is so great; there’s not enough for everyone.”

A Hispanic employer insisted, “If it wasn’t for illegal aliens coming in, just think what we would have to pay for a tomato.”

That’s false economy, argued Antonio Garcia, director of the federal financed High School Equivalency Program in San Luis Obispo. One of two such programs in California, HEP recruits its students — all farmworkers and high school dropouts — from fields throughout the southern half of the state.

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Border Patrol Officer Edward Tuffly watches a Southern Pacific freight train pull into San Luis Obispo. Mark Aronoff The Tribune

“To rely on a steady stream of undocumented workers, illegal aliens, wetbacks, ‘alambres’ (wires), ‘mojados’ (wets), to come up here and do work as cheaply as they do … I don’t think it’s proper,” Garcia said.

“I think it’s something that should be stopped.”

The ready availability of undocumented workers breeds “a number of evils,” Garcia said.

Besides the “false economy” of importing cheap labor from another nation instead of paying high enough wages to keep your own on the job, he said, the system invites exploitation of workers who are afraid to speak out.

“And what is it doing to their (the Mexicans’ ) family structures down there, to the health system up here when there’s no way to track people?” he asked.

“And they’ll continue to do it (migrate across the border) until they’re no longer hired.”

Garcia suggested that the federal government “should nail the employer, should impose a stiff penalty as an effective sanction to prevent hiring of undocumented workers.”

Yes, such a measure could breed discrimination against Hispanics, Garcia admitted. “I would resent it if every time I went to apply for a position I were questioned about (my legal status), but I think a greater good would be derived from it.

“It’s a complex enough problem that no matter how you approach it, there will be some negative fall-out,” Garcia said.

Both of the county’s federal representatives, Leon E. Panetta and Robert J. Lagomarsino, agreed that the influx of the illegal aliens is a complex problem that should be controlled.

“I see it as one of the major issues facing this country between now and the year 2000,” Panetta said.

A Democrat from Carmel Valley, Panetta agreed with Garcia that sanctions should be imposed against the employer who hires undocumented workers.

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Border Patrol Officer Edward Tuffly gets information from Jesus Ramirez Rivera at the office in San Luis Obispo. Mark Aronoff The Tribune

Edward Tuffly, patrol agent in charge of the U.S. Border Patrol’s San Luis Obispo station, argued that illegal aliens “can always beat that. They can buy counterfeit green cards down there that are so good it takes one of us to detect them.”

Panetta agreed that if employers are shown falsified credentials and have no reason to suspect them, they should not be held liable.

“On the other hand,” he said, “we have seen patterns of employment when they rehire the same persons even though they know they’re here illegally.”

Lagomarsino, a Republican from Ojai, said what’s needed is a counterfeit-proof Social Security card.

“We already have a law on the books that you have to have a Social Security card to work,” he said. If it could not be falsified, those without it would automatically be rejected from the workforce, he said.

In addition, Lagomarsino said it’s only honest to admit that illegal aliens are performing many jobs that otherwise would be left undone.

“We have to recognize that as a fact,” he said, suggesting that a guest worker system be set up so it could be monitored to ensure that laws requiring equal pay and safe conditions were enforced and that workers returned home when the jobs were completed.

Panetta said he sympathizes with Border Patrol agents, who feel frustrated as their authority to enforce immigration laws is gradually eroded by court orders and new agency policies.

The law has been undermined, the Democrat admitted, and “we have a responsibility to enforce it or change it or get rid of it.”

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Six undocumented immigrants, caught after a train check, wait in San Luis Obispo’s Border Patrol office. They’ll spend a night in jail before returning to Mexico. Mark Aronoff The Tribune

If it’s to be enforced, then “we have to give the Border Patrol sufficient personnel and technical equipment (like helicopters) to be better able to police the border,” Panetta said.

“And we have to put pressure on Mexico to assist us,” he said. “The human crisis is their crisis as well, and they can’t stand back, allowing their people to cross the border and relieving them without taking some of the responsibility.”

Garcia said: “As long as we continue to shut one eye to this activity, we’re providing a pressure relief valve for Mexico.”

If that relief weren’t there, he said, “I think there could be enough dissatisfaction with economic conditions down there that some changes could be effected.”

But the whole issue is “such a political hot potato,” in the words of the Border Patrol’s Tuffly, that it’s unlikely either country will deal with it soon.

“At this stage, there isn’t much happening on the issue,” Panetta admitted.

And Lagomarsino said: “I don’t really thing anything is going to happen … because the administration and the people who control Congress don’t want to get into that can of worms in an election year.”

“Everything is on hold here.”

David Middlecamp is a photographer for The Tribune. 805-781-7942,, @DavidMiddlecamp

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