The Inland Empire Strikes Back

California’s Inland Empire region is crumbling. The American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California intends to rebuild it.

Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California

A century ago, Riverside and San Bernardino Counties were mostly farmland. Marked by lush vineyards, vital dairy farms, and sun-kissed citrus groves, they were the image of quintessential California. As bountiful as they were beautiful, their combination of verdant mountains, rolling hills, and sweeping valleys produced so many oranges that they were credited with starting a second California “gold rush” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The region was so pretty and productive that residents began calling it the “Inland Empire.”

Unfortunately, empires fall as certainly as they rise. The Inland Empire is no exception. Like the Ottoman, Roman, and British Empires, it exploded—then imploded under the weight of its own growth.

The region’s knees started to buckle after World War II, when suburban sprawl replaced citrus as its defining industry. Development surged, which for a few decades was an attribute. But when the recession of 2008 hit, it became a handicap. Suddenly, the sources of its growth were symptoms of its decline.

“The economic crisis was especially hard on this area,” says Hector Villagra, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), which opened a satellite office in the Inland Empire in July. “In many ways, the rug was pulled out from under a lot of
people here.”

As a result, the region today is a paradox. Encompassing 27,000 square miles approximately 60 miles east of Los Angeles, including the cities of Ontario, San Bernardino, and Riverside, CA, the empire is simultaneously expanding and contracting. On one hand its population has grown by 50 percent since 1990. On the other, its poverty rate ballooned to 31 percent between 2007 and 2009, its unemployment rate peaked at 15 percent in 2010, and as of 2014, its five-year foreclosure rate is one foreclosure for every four mortgages (double the rate of California as a whole).

“A person’s ability to take advantage of the full panoply of rights really is dependent on them having a base level of economic security: housing, employment, education, and health care.”

Although conditions have improved dramatically since the height of the recession, evidence of long-term decay remains. In many parts of the Inland Empire, for instance, neighborhoods feel like ghost towns. Businesses are boarded up. Homes sit vacant. Yards are teeming with weeds and streets with gangs. It’s not the regal picture an empire should be; it’s run-down.

Still, people continue to flock to the area, even as jobs and wealth flee. According to Villagra, many of them are immigrants and minorities who want to restore the community but lack the mechanisms to do so. For that reason, when ACLU SoCal decided to expand, the Inland Empire was an obvious destination.

“A lot of people in the Inland Empire are really struggling to get by, and many of them are in need of the legal protection and advocacy we can offer,” explains Villagra, a public-interest lawyer who personally identifies with the issues facing immigrant communities. “My dad is an immigrant from Argentina, and my mom is an immigrant from Cuba. Like many immigrant parents, they sacrificed a lot.” The educational opportunity and subsequent occupational choice they afforded Villagra and his sisters are his prime motivation for serving the residents of the empire. “I decided to honor the sacrifice my parents made by choosing a career where I could help other people have the same sense of freedom and choices in their lives that I’ve had in mine.”

For immigrants, in particular—who constitute approximately 22 percent of the Inland Empire’s population—that requires having both civil and economic liberties.

“It’s very hard to separate the two,” continues Villagra. Consider, he offers as an example, a single mom: because she has to work two jobs to feed her children, she is too busy to exercise her rights to assembly and free speech, which could help her achieve higher wages. “A person’s ability to take advantage of the full panoply of rights really is dependent on them having a base level of economic security: housing, employment, education, and health care.” ACLU SoCal is interested in trying to rectify some of the empire’s economic inequities.

Specifically, ACLU SoCal has identified three major priorities for improving life in the Inland Empire: voting rights, immigrant rights, and police practices.

A number of jurisdictions in the Inland Empire have an at-large election system where the entire electorate votes for each city council member. “Where you have a majority in a community, that majority can effectively foreclose every other community from electing a representative of its choice,” Villagra says. “If you had districts instead, each community could elect its own representative.” That’s one powerful way, says Villagra, to make local governments in the Inland Empire more responsive to the needs of all their residents—particularly when it comes to school districts. With different representation on the school board, different policies within schools could produce different outcomes for students.

On behalf of immigrants, ACLU SoCal has confronted several cities that have tried to ban day laborers from standing on sidewalks and announcing their availability for work, a right, says Villagra protected under the First Amendment. Other issues of concern include drunk-driving checkpoints where officers are engaged in racial profiling and the unlawful impounding of cars, many of which belong to immigrants who can’t afford to pay the penalties and fees.

Police and immigrants in many Inland Empire communities have frayed relations. Villagra wants to help police departments work with immigrants instead of against them. “It could be everything from making sure you’ve got officers who can speak other languages to making sure police are not associated with immigration authorities so the immigrant community is not discouraged from contacting police if they’ve been a victim or witness to a crime,” he says.

The ultimate goal here is to restore faith in a community that has lost it. By doing so, Villagra hopes, ACLU SoCal can incite grassroots change that one day will turn the Inland Empire from a blighted community into a blossoming one.

“The Inland Empire has one of the lowest voter registration rates in the state, which is often a sign of apathy—a feeling that you’re stuck with the power structure that’s already in place,” he concludes. “When people receive the equal protection that they’re entitled to under the law, their confidence in the government can be restored. I think that’s really valuable and has the power to change the Inland Empire for the better.”

The Inland Empire
by the numbers

4.3 million

people live in the region,
up 50 percent since 1990


residents are undocumented immigrants.

1 in 5

young residents (ages 16-24) are neither working nor in school.

51 percent

of the population is projected to be Latino by 2015.

The poverty rate between 2007 and 2009 has grown by

31 percent

During the economic downturn, unemployment peaked at

15 percent