California Burning: Nearly one million displaced (FCN, 11-08-2007)

SAN DIEGO ( – Human rights advocates decried the alleged mistreatment of indigenous immigrants, undocumented residents and the homeless in San Diego County during recent wildfires at a Nov. 1 press conference at the San Diego offices of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Several advocate organizations said that they received hundreds of reports of civil liberties, civil rights and human rights abuses, including the denial of emergency services and shelter to homeless evacuees and undocumented immigrants, and the deportation of at least one family.

(1) Fire damaged land along Interstate 5 in San Diego County. (2) The Santiago family members, who were deported to Mexico, during the fire disaster in San Diego. Photos: Charlene Muhammad

According to the American Friends Service Committee San Diego Area Office (AFSC), evacuees seeking medical aid had to clear San Diego Police Department (SDPD) officers and at least two fully armed National Guard members.

The Santiago family, six adults and six children, sought shelter at Qualcomm Stadium on Oct. 22, after mandatory evacuation orders were issued for their Scripps Ranch community, due to the Witch Creek Fire, which burned approximately 198,000 acres.

AFSC reported that during their family’s first two days at Qualcomm, they were treated well and received clothing, water, food, even toys for the children; however, the next morning, evacuation orders were lifted and as they and volunteers were collecting their belongings to leave, another volunteer accused them of taking more supplies than allowed, although they were urged to due to an overabundance.

That volunteer called the SDPD, which called Border Patrol, and in the end, seven members of the Santiago family were deported to Tijuana, Mexico.

The Final Call reached out to the SDPD media relations department for an interview regarding the incident, however, no response has yet been received.

During an interview with the Santiago family at a Border Patrol facility in Tijuana on Oct. 25, AFSC staff documented, the family said that from 8:30 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. they received no food; were not informed of their rights to consular consultation and to make phone calls; and they were called thieves and other derogatory names by Border Patrol agents.

Adriana Jasso, Program Coordinator and Project voice for AFSC told The Final Call that the Santiago Family’s experience was the clearest manifestation of a culture of intimidation that migrant workers suffer under past and periodic collaborations between the SDPD and Border Patrol.

“When they were detained by elements of the SDPD for about three hours, as soon as Border Patrol arrived and questioned the family, a rumor spread throughout Qualcomm, especially to migrant families, that Border Patrol was running out entire families. We verified that was not the case for all, rather just two cases of families that were affected, detained and deported, but because of this, according to witnesses, about 25 people–four families–left the stadium. They took their kids right away and left,” Ms. Jasso informed. AFSC could not determine the families’ whereabouts and needs, but feared that like many during the disaster, they either sought shelter in parking lots or with family and friends.

In an emotional moment during this double tragedy of displacement by fires and subsequent abuse by law enforcement, this writer tried but could not withhold tears when Enrique Morones, founder of Border Angels/Angeles de la Frontera, presented Malik Rahim and Carolyn Jones of the New Orleans-based Common Ground Collective.

The Common Ground Collective had come to San Diego to help others, even though they are still suffering as a result of the U.S. failure to provide adequate relief to the many Black and poor survivors displaced from Gulf Coast region after Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. She especially cried because it was a testament of the Teachings of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad, that there would be a unification of the Black and Red man.

“As a spiritual person I couldn’t see myself being no other place than here. We realize that under these tragic conditions that it’s always the most vulnerable that receive the least amount of assistance, so we came to assure that those who our government normally leaves behind will receive some form of assistance. We’re seeing this similar situation with black and brown develop in New Orleans because of the exploitation of immigrant workers. We knew what we had to do,” Mr. Rahim stated.

Mr. Rahim became tearful himself as he continued, “I have to stop and say that it was an honor that when I came in here, I saw you, Sister Charlene, and the Nation of Islam because the Nation and Min. Farrakhan has done so much. He has been such an inspiration in my life and I saw the greatness of this man when he came down to New Orleans and spoke at Saint Theresa. It was a Catholic church but he was there. He was there!” He added that Min. Louis Farrakhan’s personal visit to Cuba to find out how to better evacuate and aid the masses during disasters also inspired him to travel to San Diego to aid the mistreated fire victims.

Mr. Morones said that San Diego is duplicating the crisis the world witnessed when the U.S. separated New Orleans into two communities, one totally cared for and one totally neglected. “One community was taken care of by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who patted everybody on the back for doing a good job and responding quickly, and I said to him at a press conference ‘What San Diego are you talking about,’” Mr. Morones said. He added, “When all of those Mercedes Benzes pulled out of the community and schools shut down, they continued picking because no one warned them. No one bothered to tell them about the dangers they were facing, not with 911 reverse calls nor in their native language.”

Border Angels is still collecting food, supplies and money for the vulnerable population victims, many of whom are literally residing in canyons (

Some evacuees, although medical attention was not denied, did not seek aid for fear of mistreatment or harassment. At the time of the AFSC and RRC visit to the medical ward neither military nor law enforcement personnel guarding the medical ward spoke Spanish and translators were not readily available,” the AFSC report noted.

In their report “FIRESTORM: Treatment of Vulnerable Populations During the San Diego Fires,” available on, the San Diego Immigrants Rights Consortium (IRC), Justice Overcoming Boundaries of San Diego County and the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial recommended that there should be an immediate cessation of identity checks in the disbursement of emergency shelter, food, water and other supplies during a disaster, training and deployment of language interpreters, particularly in Spanish language.