By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 20, 2007
Juggling children and clutching files, several hundred Hispanic immigrant families crowded into a free, one-day legal aid clinic in Manassas on a recent Saturday, hoping for miracles. All had put down roots in the community, but most still lived in some degree of legal limbo.
The clinic highlighted the intimate, sometimes desperate dilemmas faced by thousands of immigrant families in Manassas and other area communities, whose households often include a confusing mix of legal U.S. residents or citizens, illegal immigrants and others with temporary permits or pending immigration cases.
A house painter's wife from Mexico asked whether she could get a tourist visa for the 6-year-old son she had left behind as a toddler. A Guatemalan construction worker sought to recover Social Security payments for his brother, deported after paying taxes in the United States for a decade. A Salvadoran grandmother wondered whether she could legally visit her homeland after living as a virtual recluse with relatives in Virginia.
"For 18 years, I only spoke to my daughter by telephone," Clara Rivas, 72, said in Spanish. "Now I want to go home, but it's like I don't exist either here or there. They ask for bills and pay stubs, but I don't have any. I was always inside the walls. I never even learned enough English to take a bus. If I go now, they might never let me come back."
The clinic also afforded a look at a very different set of problems that some longtime Manassas area residents say have been caused by the rapidly swelling Hispanic community, including overcrowded housing, extra demands on schools and police and the widespread reported employment of illegal immigrants in construction jobs.
The event, which was sponsored by Ayuda Inc., a legal aid agency, and the Washington area Salvadoran-American Chamber of Commerce, was held partly to deflect such concerns. It offered free consultations with lawyers and consuls from six Latin American countries. By helping immigrant families clarify or advance their legal status, sponsors said, they hoped to make them more welcome.
"The community here has grown so fast that we Hispanic business owners are worried about an environment of hostility being created," said Jose Luis Semidey, a Venezuela-born entrepreneur who helped organize the day. "We want to educate our people and find viable legal solutions for their immigration problems. Otherwise we lose human capacity, and there is no positive way to channel relations."
Manassas's Hispanic community has expanded steadily for a decade, and Hispanic leaders said it has reached 20,000 to 30,000 people. By all accounts, most have been quiet and hardworking. There are dozens of Latino-oriented commercial businesses, including a gleaming supermarket called El Primero Mercado. Hundreds of families have moved out from apartment enclaves closer to the Washington area's core and bought their first houses.
In the past several years, however, the influx has reached a sensitive, critical mass and included increasing numbers of illegal immigrants -- no one knows how many -- raising alarm signals among some residents and putting pressure on officials to take action. The recent controversy in Herndon over a work site for day laborers has added to the tension, increasing awareness that many illegal immigrants are in the area's workforce, especially its thriving construction industry.
"It's not an anti-Hispanic thing; it's the problem with illegals. It's frustration with crowded schools and housing, seeing our taxes go up to pay for ninth-graders who can't speak English, seeing businesses fail because the competition hires cheaper illegal workers," said Maureen Wood, a teacher and community activist in Manassas. "I feel sorry for these people, but there should be consequences when you break the law."
The issue that most rankles longtime residents is the renting or sharing of houses by groups of unrelated Hispanic immigrants, often single, male workers. Two years ago, the City Council passed an ordinance limiting households to family members, but it was withdrawn amid a flurry of protests and allegations that it was a back-door form of discrimination.
Since then, some community leaders said the problem has spread, spilling into affluent neighborhoods, where immigrants have increasingly bought homes. They said dozens of such houses have their screen doors propped open -- even on cold winter nights -- as a silent signal that rooms are available to rent to single workers.
"When you have houses with 16 people crammed into them, the quality of life suffers tremendously," said Greg Letiecq, an activist affiliated with a group called Help Save Manassas. "It's fine to have Hispanic communities and homeowners, but how many illegals are they harboring?" Because of "permissive" laws and employment practices, he added, "we have made it very easy for illegal aliens to live here."
A variety of Hispanic residents, including established business owners, said they felt comfortable in Manassas and had not experienced any personal hostility. There have been no clashes over day laborers lounging on corners and no signs of Hispanic gang activity, except one recent discovery of graffiti on a residential fence.
But because of a recent economic slump, the residents said, more immigrants are losing steady jobs and going into mortgage foreclosure. Some also described a growing sense of insecurity in the Hispanic community, especially anxiety about being deported. Fewer and fewer immigrants are going out to eat at night, even in a town where every strip mall has at least one Salvadoran or Mexican restaurant.
"We are not a minority here anymore, or at least we are a large one. I pay taxes, and I have no problems with anyone. But some people are afraid," said Dimas Lizano, 45, a Salvadoran-born man who owns a small paving company. He mentioned a recent early morning incident in which a truck full of Hispanic workers sideswiped a car. The police came quickly, he said, "but the immigration van came even faster."
As the issue of illegal immigrants becomes more pronounced in Manassas, pro-immigrant organizations have begun taking actions, such as holding the free legal aid clinic, to prevent it from erupting into the kind of protracted, ugly political dispute that has bitterly divided immigrants from longtime residents in Herndon.
Officials of Ayuda Inc., which is based in the District, said they held the Manassas clinic in hope of helping families resolve as many immigration problems as possible, including visa processing, delayed residency applications, family reunification and travel complications and relief from unscrupulous lawyers or notaries who had misled them about pending cases.
Still, the officials acknowledged, there were many people they could not help, because either they or their relatives were in the United States illegally. A number of couples came in with hopeful faces and left crestfallen after brief interviews. Under current law, they were told, they had no chance of resolving their immigration problems.
The mother from Mexico, who wanted to bring her son for a visit, had no legal standing to request his visa. The grandmother from El Salvador could not get permission to travel. The man from Guatemala could do nothing to help his brother, who lost his chance at residency because he violated immigration rules by flying home to visit his sick mother.
"Everyone here has someone who is legal and someone who is not," said Erica Gomez, 34, a Bolivian woman married to a Salvadoran man. Under separate provisions of immigration law, both have the right to live here, but both have legal limits on the right to work and travel abroad. "This is our daily life, full of frustration and worry," she said. "All we can do is wait."