Barbara Coe, a leading voice behind California's
anti-illegal-immigration movement, has died.
Coe was best known for tapping into some citizens' deeply held concerns about illegal immigration and channeling them into rallies, boycotts, billboards and new laws. She was 79.
The Huntington Beach resident died Saturday of lung cancer, according to friends who vowed to continue her fight against illegal immigrants and policies to help them.
"She was the brains behind everything. And now we need to regroup," said Evelyn Miller, on the board of directors for the Orange County-based California Coalition for Immigration Reform, or CCIR.
Fellow board member Vaughn Becht said: "We have a board that will carry on her legacy."
In 1994, Coe co-sponsored a ballot measure that would have stripped public services, including education, from people who didn't have legal permission to live in California. Voters approved Proposition 187, but it was later challenged in court and voided.
In more recent years, Coe also called for a boycott of Mexico. In 1998, her group paid for a billboard at the California-Arizona border that read: "Welcome to California, the illegal immigration state. ... Don't let this happen to your state." Coe believed that President Barack Obama was born in another country. And in an interview with the Register in 2011, she said Obama was part of "the New World Order plan to destroy America."
To her supporters, Coe was a patriot. To her detractors, she was a racist.
Coe's CCIR organization is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil rights organization in Alabama that monitors hate group activities.
"This is a woman who spoke in extremely disparaging terms about Latinos and not just immigrants," said Mark Potok, spokesman for the nonprofit center.
Coe had an important role at the time, Potok said. "She was a major player" and "she helped to push what was fundamentally a racist referendum that was ultimately repudiated by the courts."
Miller, the CCIR board member, said she's heard the allegations of racism.
"We're not worried about what they call Barbara Coe," Miller said. "The charge of racism is used by charlatans. It's an overused word that doesn't mean anything anymore."
The organization will continue to meet in Garden Grove to hear speakers and discuss issues related to immigration. Their monthly meetings draw some 60 people, she said.
"The goal of our group is to educate the public and our elected officials about the devastation of our country caused by unbridled illegal immigration," Miller said.
Coe was born in South Dakota in 1933. She worked for the Anaheim Police Department, which she left in 1993, forced to take early retirement after she was accused of using police station phones, fax and copy machines to work on Proposition 187, also called the Save our State campaign.
Memorial services had not been finalized as of Tuesday afternoon, according to Akes Family Funeral Homes in Corona. She is survived by two adult children. On Thursday, another conservative group, Eagle Forum of California, will honor Coe's memory following its monthly meeting in Seal Beach.
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