A Strong, but Divisive, Voice for Immigrants

Ricardo Juarez, right, with the Rev. Jorge Acho, at a protest last week in Falls Church of Prince William's immigration crackdown.
Ricardo Juarez, right, with the Rev. Jorge Acho, at a protest last week in Falls Church of Prince William's immigration crackdown. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 27, 2007

Twelve years ago, Ricardo Juarez was an unemployed government clerk standing in the dark on a riverbank outside Eagle Pass, Tex. He had no particular American dream in mind, he says, no vision of white picket fences or the Liberty torch. The youngest male in a family of 12 siblings, Juarez was mostly thinking about food. He and a group of other migrants set their inner tubes into the swirling blackness of the Rio Grande and let the current carry them across.

Juarez washed up in Woodbridge two weeks later. His brother Alex helped him find work in construction -- digging ditches, lugging sacks of cement, driving nails. Prince William County was booming. But Juarez was more eager to organize immigrant laborers than be one.

Now 40, Juarez has become one of the Washington region's most visible -- and divisive -- Latino figures. His organization, Mexicans Without Borders, claims more than 3,500 regional members, and it is the largest and best-organized group opposing recent efforts by Prince William and other area jurisdictions targeting illegal immigrants.

But the biggest test of Juarez's leadership begins today. Juarez and his group have organized a week-long boycott in Prince William in protest of an anti-illegal immigration resolution unanimously approved by county supervisors July 10. The resolution has not been finalized, but its goal is to repel illegal immigrants by refusing them access to certain public services and to increase deportations by ordering more aggressive residency checks by police.

Juarez -- who refuses to disclose his residency status -- calls these policies "a new apartheid" and "racist." And in a move Juarez's critics say is typical of his overheated rhetoric, radical politics and strong-arm style, the businesses in the county subject to the boycott will be those lacking green placards provided by Mexicans Without Borders. Hispanic-owned or not, any business without one will be shunned.

Juarez defended this with-us-or-against-us approach in interviews last week, as his group printed more than 500 of the placards for delivery to shops, restaurants and other businesses.

"We feel like we've been backed into a corner, that no one is listening to us," Juarez said. Stung by the harsh rhetoric of the resolution's backers, Hispanic immigrants feel rejected, unappreciated and ignored, he said. "We don't expect the resolution to be rescinded, but we want the boycott to give us our voice back."

Increasingly, though, the sound of Juarez's voice -- at churches, rallies and outside government buildings -- is making county officials and others cringe. Shortly after the July 10 resolution, Juarez and his group organized three town hall-style "assemblies," the largest of which drew more than 1,000 people to a Manassas church.

Many immigrant families were confused and frightened by the resolution. And in a county where one-fifth of the population is Hispanic but there are no elected Hispanic officials and no major Hispanic advocacy organizations, Juarez offered reassurance, unity and a plan. The crowds at the assemblies voted for a march, a one-day general strike and the week-long boycott. Said Juarez, "They gave us their vote of confidence to lead this process."

Membership in Mexicans Without Borders is not limited to Mexican nationals, drawing immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries -- particularly the region's most recent arrivals. But several prominent members of the county's more established Hispanic community and others who also oppose the resolution are unnerved by Juarez's growing sway. Some are Salvadoran immigrants who came in the 1980s to escape civil war. Others include Hispanic "pioneers" who built successful businesses in areas where few Latinos lived.

With more to lose, they worry Juarez's confrontational tactics will backfire and a boycott will heighten racial tensions and harden divisions.

"I think it's premature," said Jose Luis Semidey, a U.S. citizen born in Venezuela who owns real estate offices in the Manassas area and is working with other local Hispanic businessmen to chart a more cautious course, saying they'll oppose the resolution through lobbying and legal challenges if necessary. "I don't think the boycott is going to amount to much."

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