Latinos Unite to Turn Fear Into Activism

At this meeting in Woodbridge and in two other towns, foes of the resolution signed up volunteers and set up a hotline for discrimination reports. (By Carol Guzy -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 28, 2007

Latinos in Prince William County, angered and panicked by a county resolution to crack down on illegal immigrants, are swiftly banding together against what they see as an assault on their community. They vowed this week to block the resolution through a boycott, a petition drive and possibly a labor strike or lawsuit.

At packed public meetings in three towns this week, organizers signed up volunteers, circulated petitions, set up a hotline for reports of discrimination and announced a campaign of phone calls and e-mails to county officials. They also said they would organize caravans to visit Loudoun County and other communities where Latinos feel targeted.

On Thursday night in Manassas, more than 1,000 Latino residents voted with raised fists and cheers to stage a one-week boycott of all non-immigrant businesses in Prince William at the end of next month. The crowd first met in a church, then grew so large it had to move to a park outside. Latinos in Woodbridge and Dumfries also voted this week to stage the boycott and other actions.

The surge of activism, which also includes voter registration and citizenship drives in other communities, follows a long period of drift and uncertainty for area Latino advocates, especially since the collapse of a major immigration reform bill in the Senate last month. Opponents of illegal immigrants, who had swamped Capitol Hill with impassioned e-mails and phone calls against the bill, felt emboldened by its defeat and have pressed ahead with local measures.

The resolution in Prince William was unanimously approved July 10 by supervisors; this fall the board will define how the policy change will be implemented. It seeks to deny some public services to illegal immigrants and allow local police officers and civilian officials to question people about their legal status, if there is probable cause, and notify federal immigration authorities. A similar resolution was approved in Loudoun County, and measures are being considered in other Virginia jurisdictions, such as Culpeper.

But unlike the Senate bill, which was too distant and complex to galvanize many area immigrants to action, the proposed Virginia actions are perceived as a clear, immediate threat. Latino leaders, taking a leaf from their adversaries, have become focused and organized.

"This law is built on hate and racism," said Ricardo Juarez, 40, a construction worker from Woodbridge and coordinator of a Virginia group called Mexicans Without Borders, who was the main speaker at the three meetings. "It can affect every one of us, and we have to defeat it. . . . Will people be asked for documents in libraries or parks or schools? If a woman is pregnant and goes to the hospital, is there a risk that the staff will report her to immigration?"

Backers of the Prince William resolution insist that their goal is to reduce crime and public costs associated with illegal immigrants. However, some residents have complained of feeling inundated by Latinos, who have been drawn to job opportunities in the growing region. Some say the newcomers are crowding homes, draining public services and changing the local culture.

"People are very much in favor of what we have done here in the county, including people who are legal aliens or who have been naturalized," said Prince William Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco). He said his office had received a "ton of calls" and e-mails from supporters but only a tiny number from opponents of the resolution.

But many legal Latino residents at the three meetings said they feared the resolution would also make them targets of police harassment and official hostility. They said they believed its true aim is to make life difficult for Latinos.

"We are all worried about these new laws," said Marta Manzanares, 25, a legal resident from El Salvador who attended the Woodbridge meeting with her husband, a construction worker; their two small sons; and about 500 other Latinos. "Maybe our children will have to leave school and become illiterate. . . . We came out here to buy a house and have a quiet life. Maybe now we can lose that, too."

Previous efforts to stage boycotts on behalf of immigrant causes have had mixed results in the Washington area. Last year, when national immigrant groups organized a boycott to protest deportations, some local leaders opposed participating, but Juarez's group led a construction-work slowdown and the temporary closure of some Latino shops in Northern Virginia.

This time, the proposed boycott appears to be carefully planned and to have wide community support. At the Manassas meeting, Juarez and other leaders issued specific instructions to families to stock up on milk and gas before the Aug. 27-Sept. 3 boycott, to buy school supplies in neighboring Alexandria or Fairfax County, to avoid large chain supermarkets and mega-stores and to patronize smaller, Latino-owned markets instead. Organizers passed out plastic bags of pens along with the petition against the resolution and taped up signs with phone numbers and e-mail addresses where people could express their views.

Organizers also said that if their efforts fail, they will consider a one-day labor strike, and volunteer lawyers will prepare lawsuits to challenge the resolution as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

In other parts of the region, immigrant aid groups are stepping up citizenship classes and voter registration drives to help legal immigrants gain political influence. The Washington area has about a half-million Latino immigrants; a small number are U.S. citizens, hundreds of thousands have temporary or permanent legal status, and a large but uncounted number are illegal.

In Silver Spring last weekend, dozens of Latino immigrants crowded computer screens at the nonprofit CASA of Maryland office while volunteers translated long citizenship applications. A Salvadoran grandmother stared incredulously when asked whether she would bear arms in defense of the United States. A Guatemalan man sheepishly called his wife to remind him of their wedding date.

"Some of these questions don't make sense, but this is something I really want to do," said Josefa Duran, 38, a Laurel resident and a native of El Salvador who became a legal resident years ago but did not apply for citizenship until now. "With all these new laws and changing rules, we don't want to be persecuted or have problems. I am legal, but I want to be on the safe side."

Officials of several regional organizations that help immigrants said that since the collapse of the Senate bill, they had reduced their public activities while strategizing about how to combat rising anti-immigrant sentiment and workplace federal immigration raids that have multiplied deportations and family separations.

Jaime Contreras, chairman of the National Capital Immigration Coalition, said that about 200,000 permanent residents in the region are eligible for citizenship and that tens of thousands of naturalized citizens have never registered to vote.

"There is fear in the community, but there is anger, too, because people feel they are being unjustly targeted," Contreras said. "We want to turn that anger into civic engagement and into participation in the 2008 elections. They say we are a burden, but a lot of us own houses and cars and pay taxes, and we need to stand up and be counted."

Despite the renewed activism, Latino leaders said several factors could still prevent immigrants from taking part. Illegal immigrants might be reluctant to appear at public events or fill out documents. (Leaders at the Manassas rally said people could sign the protest petitions without revealing their addresses.) And legal immigrants who have achieved financial and social prominence might not want to be associated with a movement to defend illegal immigrants.

"We are like a sleeping elephant," said Elmer Arias, president of the D.C.-based Salvadoran American Chamber of Commerce. "We who are citizens have good jobs and become comfortable. We forget that we have benefited from the community and that we have the obligation to help our people."

Staff writer Nick Miroff contributed to this report.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company