As federal lawmakers begin to haggle over changes to the county's mammoth immigration system, people on all sides of the issue are wading into the debate.
Others have been noticeably absent: a coalition of activists from Southern California who created a critical mass of opposition to illegal immigration several years ago. They did it through confrontational street protests, armed border patrols and new laws aimed at penalizing undocumented people. But many prominent leaders have moved on, leaving behind a fractured movement with diminishing influence over immigration policy locally and across the nation.
One of them is Shellie Milne, a councilwoman from the Riverside County town of Hemet. The once hard-charging Tea Party crusader rallied a small army of protesters to her cause a few years ago in the conservative bastion of the Temecula Valley, just east of Orange County. She spearheaded a campaign to pass E-Verify ordinances in cities across inland Southern California that require businesses to verify the immigration status of newly hired employees, through a federal database system.
Federal law currently requires such checks only on people hired for U.S. government jobs or by federal contractors. Milne spurred the laws to passage in several cities, including Hemet. But the ordinances were nullified by a new state law that bars local municipalities from penalizing employers who do not sign on to the E-Verify system. Ironically, mandatory E-Verify compliance for employers is now among a host of bipartisan proposals -- supported even by President Obama -- in the new Senate immigration package.
"Yeah, I don't know if I feel vindicated but it's like, 'Thank goodness,' " Milne said. "Anybody we can take, just to make sure everyone is on the same playing field."
Milne said that even though the measures she worked so hard to pass were scrapped, she took the defeat in stride. "As far as I was concerned, I was done because I got it passed," she said.
She said so much attention was drawn to the issue through her activism that a lot of local employers started voluntarily using E-Verify.
"Immigration wasn't like a huge deal," she said. "This was more of a jobs' thing than it was all about immigration. For us and our group it was about the jobs, so we had kind of moved on."
Other anti-illegal immigration activists across Southern California have moved on, too, or at least muted the volume on their bullhorns. That includes arguably the most influential voice in the anti-illegal immigration movement in recent years: a gray-haired retired public accountant and Vietnam War veteran from Orange County.
Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist at a cafe near his home in Orange County.
"I don't want to be a celebrity, to be deemed as some sort of false savior of mankind," said Jim Gilchrist, sitting under the umbrella of an outdoor cafe near his home in coastal Orange County.
About 10 years ago, Gilchrist launched the Minuteman Project, a brash band of self-described citizen patriots who took to patrolling the US-Mexico border.
"That was almost a 'shock and awe' type event," Gilchrist said. "No one had ever done anything like that before. And it did bring international attention to the issue of illegal immigration."
He said he knew a bunch of volunteers could never stem the flow of immigrants crossing the U.S. border illegally. It was showmanship, spectacle -- a way to draw attention to the issue. And it worked.
Gilchrist became a media darling, and at the peak of his celebrity around 2007 he and his allies were credited with helping derail another immigration overhaul package floated by a different group of Democrats and Republicans. But shortly after that, the Minuteman Project nearly derailed itself - after members accused Gilchrist of extorting tens of thousands of dollars and using some of the cash to bankroll a failed run for U.S. Congress.
"I have more enemies from members of my own movement than I do from the other side," Gilchrist laughed ruefully. He's not kidding. He said he has been sued, threatened and stalked by former allies.
He denies allegations of bilking Minuteman coffers. Gilchrist said he's had to battle in court just to preserve the name of the organization he created.
"I don't think the movement in general is creating that awe anymore," he said. "I think we're still audible, still carry some influence. We have moved the debate from covert whispering behind closed doors to outright front-page stories in the media."
While some activists opposed to illegal immigration burned out or moved on, others, such as Raymond Herrera, press forward. He recently blasted the Riverside County Board of Supervisors after it passed a resolution in support of a federal path to citizenship.
"Deport all these people. Deport the children because they're children of illegal alien parents," shouted Herrera during the hearing.
He is a former construction worker who claims he lost his job 10 years ago because of a surge of illegal immigrants into the industry. The Vietnam War veteran and descendant of Mexican immigrants dubbed himself "California's Crusader" and founded a small grass-roots group called We the People. Sitting in a shaded hotel courtyard near LA/Ontario International Airport on a recent afternoon, Herrera said his brand of activism is as robust as ever.
"It may be true that some street activism may have been toned down. But if you look at the overall picture across this nation, the movement is as strong as ever," he insisted. "And in fact it is getting stronger. Sweat is just pourin' off the brow."
Herrera said national groups such as Numbers USA and the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, stepped in to fill the vacuum left in the wake of smaller regional groups that have quieted or fallen silent. Members of Herrera's groups are joining FAIR in Washington, D.C., this month to lobby against any immigration reforms that include what they call amnesty -- and what others call a path to citizenship for millions of undocumented people.
UC Irvine professor Leo Chavez is the author of "The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens, and the Nation". He's tracked groups like the Minuteman Project for years.
He said many activists pulled their bare-knuckle activism from the streets and the border and took it into the mainstream via the Tea Party.
"Because let's not forget there is still a number of Congress people who are staunchly conservative and follow the philosophy of the Tea Party, and have basically declared they are against anything that smells of amnesty," Chavez said.
Milne, the Hemet councilwoman, said there has been an undeniable shift in the debate over illegal immigration. And those on either side of the issue who hold fast to rigid ideas about border security, a path to citizenship or other aspects of immigration reform could end up being swept aside.
"I tell you, I'm glad the dust is settling on immigration," Milne said. "We need a fair playing field so that people are not exploited. We want them here, but just not running around so there is no accountability really. So, I hope that the dust settles and we can finally be rid of this argument."
But with federal lawmakers just starting to chew over the details of any possible changes to immigration policy, there's bound to be a lot more arguing -- and protesting -- before any dust can really settle.