After Protests, Backlash Grows

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By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

While a series of marches focused much of the nation's attention on the plight of illegal immigrants, scores of other Americans quietly seethed. Now, with the same full-throated cry expressed by those in the country illegally, they are shouting back.

Congressional leaders in Washington have gotten bricks in the mail from a group that advocates building a border fence, states in the West and South have drawn up tough anti-immigrant laws, and ordinary citizens, such as Janis McDonald of Pennsylvania, who considers herself a liberal, are not mincing words in expressing their displeasure.

"Send them back," McDonald said. "Build a damn wall and be done with it."

The anger evoked a word that immigrant organizers who opposed Monday's boycott feared: backlash. McDonald and other Americans were particularly disturbed by Monday's boycott and civil action, attended in large part by people who entered the country illegally and are now demanding rights enjoyed by U.S.-born citizens and immigrants who entered the country legally.

"How dare they," said McDonald, a research specialist for the University of Pittsburgh who said she voted for Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the 2004 presidential election. "If they are so active, why aren't they in Mexico City, why aren't they forcing their leaders there to deal with the quality of life? If you don't like it here, go home."

That strong sentiment was heard across the country, on a radio program in Los Angeles, where talk-show hosts John Kobylt and Ken Chiampou encouraged listeners to participate in a "Great American Spend-a-Lot" to offset the effect of the boycott. They vowed to reimburse listeners picked in a drawing.

In the Washington area, African American radio listeners kept bringing up the immigration issue as Leila McDowell, a guest host on the Joe Madison show, tried to discuss abuse of black and Latino workers at a North Carolina meat-processing plant.

"I would say that the majority of comments were hostile, but it wasn't an overwhelming majority," said McDowell. "A lot of people said immigrants were trying to make ends meet just like us. And then there were those who said that they're taking our jobs, they're taking our services, that they shouldn't be legal, that my forefathers were slaves, and these people haven't paid their dues."

In Kansas City, Mo., Joyce Mucci, the executive director of the Mid-America Immigration Reform Coalition, said she didn't see much impact from the march in her city.

"Frankly I think they're overplaying their hand," she said, adding, "I think people who may have been sitting on the fence are not sitting on the fence anymore. These marches are not helping the people they're intending to help."

Congress is considering several immigration reform proposals. One would hand out temporary work permits to foreigners outside the country, allow illegal residents already here to pay a fine and work, possibly toward legal residency. Another would make it a felony to enter the country illegally and to offer assistance to anyone who does, and would build a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border. A third would force illegal immigrants here to go home before being allowed to work.

Whether the anger expressed by some Americans will translate into votes in November is anybody's guess. Fred Yang, a Democratic consultant in Washington, guessed that it will not.

"This is going to be like a tug of war," he said. "I think Republicans are trying to exploit voter concerns about immigration. It's not a winning strategy. I think voters are more concerned about health-care costs, the cost of higher education and gasoline and energy than immigration."

Immigration opponents are also concerned about the costs of public services immigrants use at the expense of taxpayers. Don Stewart, a spokesman for Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.), said his state spends $2 billion a year on health care and education for people in the country illegally. Arizona and California officials said their expense for detaining illegal immigrants who commit crimes is a combined $950 million per year, a fraction of which is reimbursed by the federal government.

"It's an enormous burden on taxpayers," Stewart said. "It's funny that people think that going out on the streets will make people change their minds. There are very strong opinions on this issue."

Cornyn is one of many politicians who got a gift from Send-a-brick.com, which allows visitors to purchase a brick for about $11 and mail it to their representative, a weighty hint to build a border fence. The site's operators could not be reached for comment.

Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.), one of the most vocal lawmakers arguing for a tough approach to illegal immigrants, said he recently attended a dinner at which an employer received rousing applause for his stand against an immigrant worker who wanted to take Monday off. "He said he told him that if you don't come to work Monday, don't bother coming in on Tuesday."

Staff writers Sonya Geis in Los Angeles and Kari Lydersen in Chicago contributed to this report.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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