A True Believer In Immigrants

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 20, 2006

José E. Hoyos stood on a stage in front of the U.S. Capitol this month, calling on lawmakers to do what is "morally correct and just" by welcoming illegal immigrants into society. The Catholic priest had dreamed of seeing an ocean of immigrants stretching from his feet to the Washington Monument. Instead, the crowd before him filled a fraction of one block of grass.

When illegal immigrants demanded amnesty at nationwide rallies in the spring, Washington area organizers turned to Hoyos, director of the Arlington Diocese's Spanish Apostolate, to marshal and inspire protesters. Though unfamiliar to many outside the Hispanic community, his magnetic preaching and frequent appearances in Spanish-language media have earned him near-celebrity status among local Latinos and in El Salvador, a nation to which he has dedicated much of his ministry.

But on this September afternoon, it was clear that not even Hoyos could rouse the masses.

"One day, we will gather for celebration," said the Colombia-born Hoyos, 50, taking a break in the shade after his speech, his hazel eyes surveying the paltry gathering. "I believe that this takes time."

The passion of spring seems to have fizzled, leaving leaders such as Hoyos to ponder the smoldering remnants of the spark that drove millions of illegal immigrants to the streets just a few months ago. Has the movement that seemed full of powerful promise in April sputtered out, or will it revive after this month's disappointing rally turnouts?

Hoyos -- believer in miracles, admirer of fictional idealist Don Quixote -- takes a long view, perhaps because a short view never yielded much.

"I'm still looking for answers," he said.

The same week that fewer than 4,000 people turned out for a Sept. 7 rally in Washington, demonstrations in Los Angeles and other cities produced even smaller crowds. Immigration proposals have stalled in Congress, and anti-illegal immigrant backlash is high.

Hoyos said protesters stayed home this month because they had seen no results from earlier demonstrations or because arrests of undocumented workers had made them fearful.

To the priest, who began demonstrating at the Capitol and asking politicians to pardon illegal immigrants in the early 1990s, this year's protests and their youthful organizers injected a shot of energy into an old quest.

Since he first met illegal immigrants while studying in Chicago 20 years ago, Hoyos has believed most are good people who need a break. He sees it like this: Someone knocks on your door in the middle of the night and needs protection. Do you help or close the door?

"I understand they are breaking the law. But what other things can they do?" asked Hoyos, who immigrated legally and became a U.S. citizen in 1995.

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