MONTGOMERY COUNTY

Day-Laborer Center Draws Protest

Paul Mendez, left, and Mark Fennel took a stand against illegal immigration while a counter-protest took place across the street.
Paul Mendez, left, and Mark Fennel took a stand against illegal immigration while a counter-protest took place across the street. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)

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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 22, 2007

A group opposed to illegal immigration held a two-hour protest yesterday in front of a day-laborer center in Montgomery County, calling on elected officials to stop funding the center that the county set up near Gaithersburg.

"Other counties are pushing legislation to stop this," Brad Botwin, one of the organizers, said at the protest yesterday morning. "We're becoming a sanctuary."

Botwin, a federal employee who started Help Save Maryland last year to advocate cutting benefits for illegal immigrants, said he has been hearing from more people who have joined his cause.

"You're seeing PTA members, government workers saying enough is enough," Botwin said. "I'm getting e-mails from across the county, across the state."

Gaithersburg officials, faced with considerable political resistance, had rejected several sites for a center where day laborers could gather to meet employers. In April, the county set up the site just outside the city limits.

One of the protesters who attended yesterday's rally, Gretta Patten, 41, of Rockville used her dachshund, Schroeder, in what she said was her debut as an activist against illegal immigration. The pet, which scurried around protesters who were waving flags and signs looking for spots of shadow, wore two signs fastened to a vest.

One said: "I've got a bone to pick with Ike," referring to County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who supports the day-laborer center and has said Montgomery will not follow in the footsteps of Prince William and Loudoun counties, where ordinances against illegal immigration have been enacted recently. The dog's other sign said: "This hotdog's got a beef with illegal immigration."

Patten, 41, said her main gripe is about the county's financial support for groups such as Casa de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that operates the day-laborer center.

"It's knowing my tax dollars go to people who are breaking the law," she said.

The protest drew members of the Minutemen, a national group founded in Arizona to patrol the U.S.-Mexico border and limit immigration. While the group of about 20 protesters waved to passing motorists near the Shady Grove Metro station, day laborers planted flowers on an unkempt patch of land in front of the center, which operates in a trailer.

Across the street, a slightly larger group of counter-protesters challenged and at times taunted Botwin's group.

"Minutemen, KKK, racist bigots, go away!" the immigrant activists yelled.

Gustavo Torres, executive director of Casa de Maryland, said the anti-illegal immigration protesters represent the view of a "small minority." He said that the center has been a success and that he thinks most people in the county support it and acknowledge the need for it.

"Any organization doing the type of work we do is going to become a target," he said.

Sara Pellecer, an immigrant from Guatemala who was with the day laborers yesterday, said she and other immigrants worry about the anti-immigrant sentiment that appears to be spreading in the region, especially in the wake of the new ordinances in Virginia.

"The measures aren't wise," she said. "They push people toward poverty and despair."


© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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