Electronic sign stirs controversy

Published 10:10 am Friday, August 3, 2012

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

A Latino nonprofit based 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.”

Centro Campesino, an advocate group for the Latino and migrant community in southern Minnesota, said it takes offense to the sign. The sign hangs in a neighborhood with many Latino people.

And if the sign weren’t enough, the same phrase could be seen on a banner behind a yellow airplane Thursday afternoon across Albert Lea.

A news release from Centro Campesino states the phrase targets the Latino population and creates an unwelcoming and 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 stated.

The organization has invited members of the Latino communities in south central and southeastern Minnesota, as well as other allies who wish to participate in the protest, which runs from 6 to 8:30 p.m. on a lawn across the street from the sign. The sign is at the corner of Pearl and Front streets.

Dima Corp.’s building is a former grain elevator and has 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 out to the Minnesota Coalition for Immigration Reduction for use 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 incident sparked controversy.

The Tribune attempted to reach Prinzing for comment Thursday. An employee at Dima Corp. said he was out of town. The Tribune left a number for the employee to give to Prinzing, but he didn’t call.

“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 some others from his group plan to come out to 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, too, has been receiving several calls about the sign this week from people questioning whether the sign is in violation of 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.”