California parade: festival or battleground in U.S. immigration debate?

For 40 years, this quaint city overlooking the Pacific has united around its annual Patriots' Day Parade, a celebration of school marching bands, charities, civic groups and military personnel. This year, however, the small-town tradition has become an unlikely battlefield in the national debate over illegal immigration.

The nonprofit group that runs the parade recently rejected a float sponsored by the Minuteman Project, a self-styled border patrol run by illegal immigration opponent Jim Gilchrist. Now, his group is threatening legal action on free-speech and discrimination grounds and has gone to the airwaves to criticize the liberal city and its parade.

Organizers have had to field a stream of e-mails and phone calls from Minuteman supporters. The controversy has shaken Laguna Beach, a bohemian town of 24,000 tucked into coastal hills that's best-known for its vibrant arts scene, ocean vistas, laid-back atmosphere and prominent gay population.

Despite the commotion, members of the Laguna Beach Patriots' Day Parade Association Inc. voted unanimously Monday to stand their ground. The issue began when two members of the Minuteman Project who live in Laguna Beach filled out an application to enter a float in the March 4 parade on behalf of their group. The parade committee, however, turned down the application because of its ban of groups with a religious or political affiliation or message.

The Minuteman Project, co-founded by Gilchrist, uses volunteer civilians to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border for illegal immigrants. Gilchrist ran unsuccessfully for the 48th congressional district last year and has suggested he may challenge Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger for re-election.

The organization proposed a float bearing dancers who would perform a choreographed act with binoculars and folding chairs to imitate border patrollers and another group of actors in Revolutionary War costumes, Gilchrist said Monday in a telephone interview. About 400 civilian volunteers would follow the float on foot, he said.

Gilchrist maintains that the Minuteman Project isn't political and that many of the parade's past and current entrants violate the same rule, including a gay men's choir, a peace group and a local center that runs a day laborer center on the city's outskirts. He said his group plans to file a lawsuit alleging discrimination and violation of free speech.

"They say the Minuteman Project is controversial, but so is the gay group and so is the vigil for peace. Every time I go down to the Main Beach there, I see them protesting" against the Iraq war, said Gilchrist, who is also a former Marine.

Parade organizers say they just want the controversy to end so they can continue planning an annual treat, a parade where "half the town's in it and the other half's watching," Quilter said. "These hateful calls and e-mails can really wear a person down," Quilter said. "I think the issue that they're trying to raise is an important part of the national debate ... But it's a political dialogue and has nothing to do with a small-town parade", reports the AP. N.U.