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Costa Mesa cracks down on illegal immigrants

There's a backlash brewing against illegal immigrants in a community about 40 miles south of Los Angeles. NBC's George Lewis reports on why.

There's a backlash brewing against illegal immigrants in a community about 40 miles south of Los Angeles. Costa Mesa is training its police officers to function as immigration agents, cooperating with the federal government to enforce immigration laws - the first local city in this country to do that. It's created a huge controversy.

This city has a population of 110,000 —about one-third Latino — and it is deeply divided. The divisions play out at city council meetings.

"I come here to support the mayor," said one speaker at a recent meeting, "and all those people who are trying to get a handle on the criminal illegal aliens that are invading our country."

But a woman waving a Mexican flag responded: "Abraham Lincoln knew that we Mexicans weren't banditos."

At the center of the divide is Mayor Allan Mansoor's plan, approved by the council, requiring  police officers to enforce immigration laws and get rid of illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

"When someone commits a crime and they are here illegally and they go through our criminal justice system," Mansoor says, "I want to make sure they are deported."

The mayor says that will make the city safer. His critics accuse him of grandstanding.

"We don't need a cowboy sitting in the mayor's seat in Costa Mesa saying, ‘I'm gonna round 'em up and send them all away," says lawyer Chris Blank.

While Costa Mesa favors using local police to enforce immigration laws, many communities frown on the idea, fearing that it would create a strain between officers and Latinos.

Some, like bakery owner Vincente Varajas, claim that's exactly what's happened here.

"People think that just because of the way you look, you are going to get picked up by the police," Varajas says.

Katrina Foley says, "This issue has been hijacked by outside interests and they are just using our city as a forum to debate a national issue."

Those outside interests include the Minutemen, a controversial citizen's group that wants to help the government crack down on illegal immigration.

The mayor endorses them. "If they're bringing light to the issue," Mansoor says, "I think that's an important role to play."

But some critics want the Minutemen to lay off, saying, "Go back to your own cities, leave mine alone."

Costa Mesa is now jumping into the immigration issue and polarizing its people.