Report Surveys the Damage of San Diego’s Fires to Basic Rights

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: November 2, 2007

San Diego, CA – As the smoke cleared after twelve days of ravaging fires, the ACLU of San Diego & Imperial Counties, Immigrant Rights Consortium, and Justice Overcoming Boundaries released a report revealing patterns of neglect and instances of abuse of some of the area’s most vulnerable populations–especially Latino immigrants and the indigent–in the rescue and relief efforts.

The report, “Firestorm: Treatment of Vulnerable Populations During the San Diego Fires” recounts the positive and negative aspects of the fire response and documents the experiences of scores of people who suffered harassment, racial profiling and intimidation. The report recommends specific reforms to avoid such problems in future disasters.

“It is sad that, among all the good, some of the insensitivities, biases, and politics that negatively affect marginalized people also came out,” said Mother Patricia Andrews-Callori, president of Justice Overcoming Boundaries.

“We hope that, through an assessment of what went wrong, we can build on what went right,” said ACLU Executive Director Kevin Keenan.

Last week, over 500,000 residents of San Diego became part of the largest evacuation in the region’s history. In many instances, immigrants, poor members of the community, homeless people, and detained populations were shut out of the relief effort. Several journalists were harassed and denied entry to the aftermath of the fires and unable to cover the relief efforts.

Examples of abuses detailed in the report include:

  • In a revealing omission, the reverse 911 calling system, which was widely heralded for its ability to quickly notify people of evacuation orders, delivered messages only in English, despite available technology that could have easily accommodated other languages. As a result, San Diego County’s 30 percent Latino population was not adequately notified of the evacuation.
  • San Diego Police, in violation of their own policy, detained and handed over to U.S. Border Patrol a family they accused of looting and intending to sell relief supplies when witness testimony from relief volunteers and the family strongly discount those allegations. The Border Patrol deported seven family members, including a 2-year-old U.S. citizen and children aged 8 and 13. The incident sparked fear in immigrant communities and preceded a rash of misguided, aggressive enforcement by police and Sheriff’s deputies at evacuation centers. (p.5-6)
  • The police conducted a sweep of the Qualcomm evacuation center late Tuesday night, checking for IDs and ejecting everyone without IDs showing they were from an affected area. On Wednesday morning, the police instituted problematic ID checks at the gate. (p.6)
  • Second-guessing relief volunteers who had piles of donated goods to share, San Diego Police began harassing people leaving with “too many” goods, which, in every case that we observed, involved people of color—mostly Latinos, but also a Filipino 19 year old who had volunteered for three days and was helping families bring goods to their cars and an African-American woman who was bringing out diapers, wipes, and other supplies for her sister’s family who was also evacuated. (p.6-9)
  • At the Del Mar Fairgrounds evacuation center, fifteen Sheriff’s deputies entered and began to harass evacuees until the American Red Cross intervened. A group of deputies detained and interrogated a Latino evacuee, and another group of deputies harassed a family gathering relief supplies with Red Cross permission. (p.9-12)
  • Although it appears many of the prisons and detention facilities in the south of the County prepared for emergency evacuations and took other precautions, the ACLU received reports from detainees at the San Diego Correctional Facility that they could smell smoke, ash and particulate matter inside the facility, and at least two detainees were forced to seek medical attention due to difficulty breathing. (p.18)
  • The Superior Court of San Diego County extended the length of detention prior to arraignment for felony convictions from 48 hours to seven days until November 26, long past the need created by the fires for such an emergency exception. The ACLU has respectfully urged the Court to resume the 48-hour rule. (p.19)
  • San Diego Police ordered a news cameraman to stop filming the aftermath of an arguably illegal detention that resulted in the deportation of a family trying to take relief supplies. The police officer threatened that if the cameraman continued to film, it would ruin the local CBS affiliate’s relationship with the police department. (p.25)
  • A Vice President of Blackwater USA threatened an Alpine Sun reporter with legal action for taking pictures and reporting on a fire while on Blackwater property in Portrero. (p. 25)

The ACLU, IRC, and JOB issued recommendations for change, including the following:

  • Officials must be able to guarantee that all victims – including immigrants – can have access to vital aid without fear of apprehension, inspection or unfair treatment.
  • Officials must deploy properly trained language interpreters.
  • Officials must create a task force across the civic spectrum to create clear policies about what is reasonable and allowable during a crisis.

ACLU-JOB-IRC Report: Firestorm: The Treatment of Vulnerable Populations During the San Diego Fires

Final Report – Firestorms 11-07.pdf