Mix-Up Reveals Va. Day Laborers' Rising Fear

By Nikita Stewart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 1, 2006

When William Lilley, who counts traffic for a living, and his two co-workers pulled into the Woodbridge 7-Eleven parking lot yesterday morning at 5:15, the handfuls of men in work boots and jeans regarded them warily.

The Virginia Department of Transportation workers had arrived to count cars and pedestrians at the intersection of busy Route 1 and Longview Drive, but Lilley said he immediately realized that to the day laborers waiting for work at the convenience store, they looked like the enemy.

Their vehicles -- a green minivan, white station wagon and gray sport-utility vehicle -- were unmarked, and they carried traffic-counting machines that from a distance looked like oversized digital cameras. To the workers, the three appeared to be members of the Minutemen Project, a national group that actively opposes illegal immigration and whose local chapter recently has been taking photos and video of contractors and workers at a day-laborer center about 35 miles away in Herndon.

Before Lilley, who speaks Spanish, could explain who they were, some laborers walked off the site, and others called advocacy groups Mexicans Without Borders and the Woodbridge Workers Committee. Before Lilley and company could make their identities known, the two groups had sent out a joint news release that read: "ALERT - Urgent: Minuteman show up at Woodbridge VA day laborers site today."

The case of mistaken identity illustrates the fear among day laborers of being harassed and the tension surrounding immigrants in the region, said Ricardo Juarez, coordinator of Mexicans Without Borders.

"The majority of the workers left. They left because these people showed up," he said. "The life of the workers is really affected by this. If the workers don't get a job, they don't have money to feed their families."

The 7-Eleven was the scene of two raids in fall 2004 that led to the arrests of nearly two dozen men and the detention of seven of them by federal immigration authorities. Loitering charges against the men were later dismissed for those who appeared in court, and the Woodbridge Workers Committee struck a deal with 7-Eleven to allow workers to stand on one side of the store.

But Prince William and Manassas residents remain divided on issues surrounding Latinos and immigrants. The Manassas City Council recently repealed a law passed last year that limited the number of extended family members living in the same house. The ordinance had drawn criticism for targeting immigrant families.

George Taplin, president of the Herndon chapter of the Minutemen Project, said yesterday's mix-up shows the group's increasing visibility. "I think it's good that the illegal aliens are aware of our presence. It gives us a little more credibility," he said.

Chris Newman, legal programs coordinator for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network, disagreed. He said the group has not gained credibility but has caused "division and fear in our community."

That fear was evident to Lilley and his colleagues at the convenience store yesterday.

"I saw two gentlemen looking at me. I said, 'Oh, no,' " Lilley said. "I could see they were intimidated."

Lilley said that his wife is Hispanic and that the couple have closely followed the day-laborer disputes in the news. He said he told his colleagues that the workers were frightened.

"I speak Spanish. I whispered to a couple of them, 'Don't worry. We're with the state,' " he said.

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