Guardian of the Green Card

Minuteman Project activist Carmen Mercer waits for her bags at BWI Airport. Of illegal immigration, she says:
Minuteman Project activist Carmen Mercer waits for her bags at BWI Airport. Of illegal immigration, she says: "I see it everywhere." (By Michael Williamson -- The Washington Post)
By Carol Morello, Ernesto Londoño and Allison Klein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 8, 2006

As she breezed off the plane from Salt Lake City, the woman who had come to protest illegal immigration crossed paths with a man who first set foot here as an illegal immigrant.

Carmen Mercer bustled into Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport wearing a big red and white sticker on her jacket that said, "Secure America Now! No to Amnesty."

It was amnesty, granted a few years after he entered the country illegally from El Salvador, that allowed Cadelario Reyes to build a landscaping business in Gaithersburg. As Mercer's flight landed, Reyes's 24-year-old son was about to depart for duty in the Navy, and the two men embraced near the security gate.

Mercer, 51, a petite grandmother, had come to Washington for today's Capitol Hill rally by the Minuteman Project, an activist group that wants to seal the nation's borders against illegal immigration and torpedo President Bush's proposed guest-worker program for illegals. Locally, a Minuteman chapter has tracked immigrants at a site where day laborers gather in Herndon.

Though she runs a diner barely 30 miles north of the Mexican border in Tombstone, Ariz., Mercer said she once was oblivious to the tide of immigration.

"For years, I never was aware of it," Mercer said as she headed toward the baggage carousel, near the newsstand where Gilda, from Guatemala, and Maria, from Mexico, chatted amiably in Spanish in between ringing up purchases. "Now I see it everywhere."

In the Washington region, where an estimated one in six residents is foreign-born, she would see a thousand faces of immigration during her visit.

Her eyes were opened to them by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. As she was becoming more vigilant, Arizona had an influx of people after crackdowns along the Mexican border in California and Texas.

"I can guarantee terrorists have come across the border," she said. "I don't want 9/11 to happen again. It's a national security thing."

Mercer walked toward the rental car shuttle, past cabdrivers from Russia, Africa and Asia waiting by the curb, and by Olawoyin Dauda, a Nigerian who moved to the United States after his computer business tanked. He now stood beside his blue Super Shuttle van.

For now, the buffalo burgers in her Tombstone diner are being served by her 13 employees, freeing Mercer for what she considers her patriotic duty.

Many nights, she has headed into the Arizona desert in her Chevrolet pickup, on patrol with another woman. Locals call them the Granny Brigade.

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