Santa Maria is home to the latest chapter of the Minuteman Project, a group that has famously monitored the U.S.-Mexico border, standing against would-be illegal immigrants. Aside from its presence there, the group, founded by a man named Jim Gilchrist, has lobbied in Washington, D.C., and Sacramento for better enforcement of existing immigration laws, as well as new penalties for undocumented workers and their employers.
The Central Coast chapter of the Minuteman Project planned to meet on Feb. 20 at the Santa Maria Inn. Local founder Paula James said that she expected a big turnout, despite public denouncements from city officials.
Since its inception in 2004, the Minuteman Project has drummed up as much hate and outrage from human rights advocates and immigration proponents as it has devotion from anti-immigration
activists, who regard Gilchrist as more of a patriotic hero.
James said that the Central Coast chapter believes that non-tax-paying undocumented workers stress the local economy through their use of emergency and social services, and that local and state officials should crack down on existing laws.
"Lets face it," James said. "It's against the law. They're not supposed to be here, so we shouldn't be patting them on the back and rewarding them for coming illegally. That's what this is really about."
Santa Maria City Councilwoman Hilda Vela Zacarias has publicly denounced the group's vigilante tactics, saying that she doesn't want to see a city where people are "afraid of their neighbors."
"I'm opposed to having an organization--without any authority--becoming agents to enforce the law," Zacarias said in an interview. "Whether they are pointing guns at the border, or pointing accusatory fingers in Santa Maria, it's not okay. It's not the way to change policy."
Santa Maria resident Hazel Putney, speaking on behalf of an unofficial group of citizens who planned to protest the event, said that Minuteman opponents don't want the group to come in and divide the community.
"They're asking us to give in to our prejudices," she said.