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Fighting police checkpoints while pressing for a dream

By Cesar Arredondo

Activists use the latest technologies to help undocumented immigrant motorists and hope 2013 could bring ‘license for all’

OXNARD — Francisco Romero doesn’t like police checkpoints. He believes that towing companies and municipalities unfairly profit from undocumented immigrants caught there driving without a license. So Romero would likes to hit them where he thinks it hurts: their pockets.

The Oxnard resident is a member of Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective, an activist group that uses Facebook, Twitter and texting to warn immigrants about checkpoints before they happen — and avoid getting stopped, fined and their vehicles impounded. Collective members also turn out on location to help motorists avoid inspection points by law enforcement.

On a recent night, half a dozen collective members and supporters held huge signs in English and Spanish along Saviers Road to alert motorists about a checkpoint around the corner on Pleasant Valley Road in Oxnard.

“We probably turned away several hundreds vehicles,” Romero says proudly. “Some of the drivers were campesinas.”

A Ventura County grand jury report on vehicle impound fees published last March found that most cities charge fees according to state vehicle code. The collective doesn’t buy it and plans to press on with its preemptive checkpoint warning system.

Until last year unlicensed drivers faced a mandatory 30-day vehicle impound when caught and also faced other fees in accordance to state and local laws. That meant fees of up to $1,500, often higher than the car’s worth. Many immigrants abandoned their cars instead of paying the charges while still facing court fines.

A new state law, however, forbids automatic towing for getting caught driving without a license at checkpoints. AB 353 was authored by Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D- Los Angeles) after news reports said that the corruption-plagued city of Bell used police inspection points to charge huge fees from undocumented immigrants. The law went into effect at the beginning of this year.

Now unlicensed drivers at checkpoints can have the vehicles’ registered owners or their authorized representatives pick up the cars by showing a driver’s license before the checkpoints close, according to Senior Office and Traffic Coordinator Jamie Brown of the Oxnard Police Department.

If that’s not possible, the cars will be towed away but can be picked up the following days — no longer a minimum of 30 days, says Brown. In Oxnard, this could mean having to pay the $241 police release fee, the $130 towing fee and the $30 daily storage fee — about $400 in total.

Todo Poder al Pueblo collective acknowledges that things have improved but insists that cities and towing companies are still raking in high fees and profiting from many undocumented immigrants, who usually work in low-paying jobs in agriculture and other sectors.

Oxnard has the highest vehicle release fee in the county. Thousand Oaks is second with $220, followed by Ventura with $200 and Port Hueneme with $160. The Sheriff’s Office’s charges an $11 fee in unincorporated areas, the lowest in the county. Activists also question what the collected fees are used for.

But according to the grand jury’s report, in the case of Oxnard the $241 release fee covers the cost of checkpoint personnel and resources, including a police officer, a police department commander, a dispatcher, a records technician, a word processor and a black and white cruiser. Other cities use different formulas. The report does not break down the cost per item.

On the other hand, the city also has received several grants from the California Office of Traffic Safety for drunk driving and collision prevention, including one to two checkpoint each month, says Senior Officer Brown.

For example, in November of 2010 the city got a grant of $305,000 for a whole year, according to a police department press release. The document did not specify how much money was allocated to checkpoints.

On the last checkpoints from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m. on May 25, more then 20 police officers and various other volunteers worked two locations, one at the intersection of Pleasant Valley at Saviers roads and the other on the corner of Oxnard Boulevard and Eight Street. They also involved several motorcycles, cruisers, trucks and other equipment.

Both the police and activists seem to agree that the number of impounded cars may be decreasing this year thanks to AB 353 based on anecdotal evidence, although neither provide figures.

In order to keep those numbers low, the community needs to be informed about their rights and responsibilities, according to some activists.

“A lot of undocumented immigrants are still driving but unaware of the new law,” says Miguel Rodriguez, a community organizer with the Central Coastal Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy, CAUSE. “They should learn about the new rules and carry on them a Mexican ID card, a phone number of someone who could pick up their cars at checkpoints and proof of car insurance. They also need to stay away from situations where they can be pulled over.”

“Vehicle impounds were a terrible situation in Ventura County,” says Alicia Flores, executive director of La Hermanidad Hank Lacayo Youth and Family Center in Oxnard. “But things are changing. At our center we don’t get as many complaints as we used to.”
Most activists believe that the best solution would be a humane, comprehensive immigration reform, which has proven elusive under President Barack Obama’s term in office.

For now they are turning their attention to another legislative effort in Sacramento to restore the driver’s license for undocumented immigrants, which was available for many years until it ended back in 1993.

Assemblyman Gil Cedillo says he will introduce again legislation in the next few months before the end of his term out of office later this year.

There is a new sense of optimism among immigrants in California. The state passed the Dream Act that will allows undocumented students to get financial aid to attend college.

And some point to recent comments in favor of driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants made by Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca and Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck.

“We are hopeful that 2013 will be the year,” says Elliott Gabriel, another member of Todo Poder al Pueblo Collective. “We need the entire community to get behind this issue and send a message that the time is now. We need the support of organized labor, faith groups, students, everyone in our communities.”

Adds Romero, the other collective member: “We’re going to be lobbying hard, meeting with the sheriff, police chiefs and the CHP in Ventura County. If we succeed, that would be the end of worries of cars being impounded at checkpoints. We’re going to say: Esto se acabó” — We’ve done it.

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