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Anti-illegal immigration groups grow in Florida

BY CASEY WOODS
miamiherald.com

World War II veteran Enos Schera monitors ''the invasion'' from his Miami home in the predominantly Cuban-American suburb of Westchester. Information is the former Marine's weapon.

Surrounded by stacks of paper, old televisions, VCRs and radios, Florida's ''grandfather of immigration reform'' -- as other activists have dubbed him -- tracks crimes committed by immigrants, failing public schools and politicians' positions.

Schera's Citizens of Dade United is among a growing cohort of anti-illegal immigration groups in Florida trying different tactics to drive out undocumented immigrants. They have turned to legislators in Tallahassee for help in the wake of Washington's inability to find a solution.

''I feel like a little guy at the bottom of the dam with my finger plugged in the dike,'' said Schera, 80, vice-president of the group. ``I know what's going to happen if I pull my finger out, only instead of a trillion tons of water it will be a trillion tons of people.''

After mounting a somewhat solitary fight for three decades in Miami, the city with the nation's highest percentage of foreign-born residents, Schera now has company.

In Haines City, the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps organizes teams of Floridians to help patrol the Arizona-Mexico border for immigrants trying to sneak in. In Jupiter, Floridians for Immigration Enforcement protest outside an ''illegal immigrant hiring hall'' and sometimes post videos on Youtube.com of those who come to hire workers. In Fort Myers, Citizens Against Illegal Immigration hold candlelight vigils to honor U.S. citizens killed by illegal immigrants.

Now, the groups are lobbying the Florida Legislature on illegal immigration. Among measures: Require state government contractors to participate in a federal program to verify new employees' immigration status and make it a crime to harbor or transport an undocumented immigrant.

''People call us hate-mongers and racists, but this isn't about racism at all; it's about the rule of law,'' said state Minuteman Civil Defense Corps director Bill Landes, 52, in Haines City.

Immigrant advocates, who call anti-illegal immigration groups ''nativists,'' say the anti-immigrant rhetoric can have dangerous results, evidenced by a reported rise in hate crimes against Hispanics. FBI statistics indicate a spike of almost 35 percent from 2003 to 2006.

The Southern Poverty Law Center recently released a report saying the number of ''hate groups'' grew by 48 percent since 2000, an increase it attributes to growing anti-immigrant sentiment.

''I think what's happened in many cases is that some of the real vile . . . propaganda against Latinos and immigrants specifically, really begins in white supremacist hate groups,'' said the Center's Mark Potok. ``But what we're seeing as a phenomenon is that those allegations make their way out of hate groups and then go into the anti-immigration movement.''

The leaders of the nascent Florida groups are generally older men -- several of them veterans -- who often feel the country's soul is threatened by the influx of mostly Hispanic immigrants.

They seethe every time they have to ''press 1 for English'' when they call a government office. They reel off figures about overpopulation and immigrants on welfare. Many believe that Mexican immigrants want to reclaim California and the Southwest.

With an estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States, the frustration has been climbing steadily on both sides of the immigration debate.

In the Minuteman group's early days in 2005, members considered regular boat patrols off the Florida coast to search for immigrants attempting to arrive by sea, but now the group's sights are set on Tallahassee.

Landes feels a fresh urgency every time he looks at his nephew, a 5-year-old who was taken from his dying mother's womb when she was seven months pregnant. A truck driver crashed into her car. The man was using a false license and Landes is convinced he was illegal -- though he has no evidence.

Landes, a disabled construction contractor, finances his activism by collecting cans and taking the occasional odd job. He said Florida Minuteman Corps membership has jumped from 57 in 2006 to more than 300 at eight chapters. The leader of a new chapter in Miami-Dade, declined an interview.

Membership began to swell for such groups in 2006 -- a backlash to massive marches by immigrants in major cities.

''Most of the public watching this saw millions of people on the street demanding rewards for doing something wrong and thought that there is something seriously wrong in this country,'' said Ira Mehlman, media director for the national organization Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR.

As with many other activists, Schera, whose son and a grandson followed him into the military, feels the world around him has changed in ways he cannot accept -- starting with the Mariel boatlift when 125,000 Cubans arrived.

Asked if he has Cuban friends, Schera points to Heberto Casares.

Casares, 88, sold a short-wave radio to Schera, an amateur ham radio operator, and they became friends. Schera, an electrician, helped Casares build his first house.

Casares disagrees with some of Schera's views -- for example, Casares thinks translating government documents into Spanish or other languages makes sense -- but he doesn't worry about his friend's more controversial views.

''I can't break my head about why he does all this and all that as an activist,'' Casares said. ``I see the good part about Enos.''

Schera claimed several political victories in early 1980s, including an ordinance that declared English the official language of Miami-Dade County. That measure was later repealed as Cuban Americans gained political power.

'We have bigger issues now than the `English-only' fight,'' said Dave Caulkett, 59, of Floridians for Immigration Enforcement or FLIMEN.

Caulkett and other activists attended an October summit in Orlando organized by FAIR, an event that gave birth to the loose lobbying coalition now in Tallahassee.

With the failure of federal immigration reform, local and state governments have become the new battlefront.

Oklahoma and Arizona have passed the most restrictive laws. An Arizona law yanks the business license of employers who hire illegal immigrants. Oklahoma's law, used as a model for a Florida bill, makes it a crime to hire or transport undocumented immigrants.

Caulkett also runs a website, www.reportillegals.com, where, for a $10 fee, he will report a suspected ''illegal alien'' to immigration.

Caulkett's group spends most Saturday mornings protesting outside Jupiter's El Sol Neighborhood Resource Center, a non-profit that matches day laborers with employers looking for workers.

''Shut down the Jupiter illegal alien hiring hall!'' Caulkett yells with carnival barker's flair.

Protesters hold signs that read ''Mow your own damn grass!'' and ``Hiring an Illegal? Smile for the camera.''

One of the group's early attempts at taping would-be employers -- to post the video on Youtube -- ended in a December altercation. One employer, now facing simple battery charges, allegedly tried to take away the camera and pushed Caulkett.

Inside the center workers seem bemused by the weekly demonstration.

''They accuse us of all sorts of terrible things, but we just want to work,'' said day laborer Jose Alvarez, 41, from Guatemala.

For every emotional story of an immigrant in need, activists counter with a tragedy.

Russell Landry, head of the Fort Myers-based Citizens Against Illegal Aliens of Southwest Florida, has held candlelight vigils for Americans killed by undocumented immigrants.

Landry, a disabled former Marine, was touched by a mother's telephone call. She recounted the story of her daughter, a 19-year-old honors student who was killed by a drunk driver, an undocumented immigrant who had been deported several times before.

''It's very frustrating, because people don't seem to get involved because they haven't been directly affected,'' said Landry, 47, who's planning to move to New Hampshire. ``I don't know what it's going to take for more people to stand up for our country.''

Florida Contact Info

MCDC of Florida

Florida State Director


Mailing Address:

Central Florida

Covering Polk, Hardee, Highlands, Desoto, Glades, and Okeechobee Counties

Chapter Director

Miami-Dade Chapter

Chapter Director
Rick Zoehfeld
Email:

Space Coast Chapter

Volusia, Brevard, and Indian River Counties
Chapter Director
James Johnston
email:

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 Minuteman Civil Defense Corps Project and MinutemanHQ.com are projects of Declaration Alliance (DA) -- a public policy and issues advocacy organization
that aggressively addresses the intensifying assaults that the American Republic continues to endure at home, and abroad.
Declaration Alliance is a 501(c)(4) not-for-profit, tax exempt organization.


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