‘Deport illegals’ sign stirs controversy

Published 9:26 am Saturday, August 4, 2012

This sign at the corner of Pearl and Front streets has prompted a protest slated for Monday. -- Sarah Stultz/ Albert Lea Tribune

Sign declares “Catch and release — no! Deport illegals — si.”

ALBERT LEA — A Latino nonprofit out of Owatonna is organizing a protest slated for Monday in Albert Lea near an electronic sign that some consider racist, while others defend it as simply free speech.

The sign, posted high on the side of the Dima Corp. building at 628 Pearl St., is owned by Albert Lean Mal Prinzing. It reads “Catch and Release – No!; Deport Illegals – Si.” And if the sign weren’t enough, the same phrase was printed on a yellow banner behind an airplane flying above Albert Lea Thursday afternoon.

Centro Campesino, an advocate group for the Latino and migrant community in southern Minnesota, said it takes offense to the sign, as it hangs in a neighborhood where many Latino people live. The protest — which Centro Campesino says is open to the public — is slated for 6 to 8:30 p.m. on a lawn across the street from the sign, located at the corner of Pearl and Front streets.

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A news release from Centro Campesino says the phrase targets the Latino population and creates a hostile environment for Hispanics in Albert Lea — not just for those who are undocumented. The phrase “Catch and Release – No!” also dehumanizes undocumented immigrants by likening their arrest and deportation to fishing, the release says.

Dima Corp.’s building is a former grain elevator with corrugated steel siding. The company owns adult-novelty stores and circulates adult videos. It also is a registered seller of aircraft and often rents out a large yellow sign with moveable letters. Most notably, in 2008, the yellow sign was rented to the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction during the “Third of July Parade.” The sign’s message on both sides said: “Illegal immigrants cost jobs, hospitals and courts.”

Children near the corner of Bridge Avenue and Fountain Street threw rocks at the sign, and one rock missed, hitting a woman in the face. The event sparked controversy.

The Albert Lea Tribune attempted to reach the sign’s owner for comment, but an employee at Dima Corp. said he was out of town.

“What happened to free speech?” asked Paul Westrum, founder of the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction and an Albert Lea resident. “A guy has free speech and puts a sign out there. Why is anybody complaining about it?”

Westrum said he and others from his group plan to attend the protest Monday night, mainly to answer questions from Centro Campesino.

“We’ve had immigration laws on the books for years and years, but for the last 20 years our government has refused to protect us with these laws,” he said.

City Inspector Doug Johnson said he has been receiving several calls about the sign this week from people questioning whether it violates city ordinances. Johnson said despite what some people think, Prinzing went through all of the proper channels to have the sign installed, and the sign is legal.

“He did get a permit, and he did have a licensed sign hanger to hang that sign up there,” he said. “We can’t do anything about the content, nor should we. That’s a First Amendment right.”