Immigrant Boycott's Impact Less on Sales Than on Debate

Oscar Alfaro, right, from El Salvador, said of immigrants, "Bad ones cause prejudice against the good." (By Pam Constable -- The Washington Post)
By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007

After four days, a boycott called to protest proposed restrictions on illegal immigrants in Prince William County appears to be having minimal impact on the national chain stores that are its chief targets.

Every day since Monday, a small but steady stream of Hispanic customers has wheeled shopping carts out of county Wal-Marts and lined up for lunchtime burgers at fast-food outlets.

But the week-long boycott has sharpened the contradictory emotions and opinions among county residents, highlighting the complexity of a fast-changing region that has experienced the burdens and benefits of immigration.

Some established Latino immigrants, for example, say they sympathize with illegal newcomers but fear the boycott will provoke hostility and tar all Latinos as undesirables. Some non-Hispanic store owners say they feel uncomfortable with the heavy influx of Latinos but need their business.

"My father always told me, when you visit a house, you have to follow the rules of the house," said Oscar Alfaro, 30, a legal immigrant from El Salvador, who was eating at a Burger King in Manassas. He said that instead of singling out illegal immigrants, authorities should distinguish between clean-living immigrants and those who commit crimes.

"The bad ones cause prejudice against the good," he added. "My tools have been stolen three times from my van, and it was done by Hispanics. When I came here, you could leave your door open at night. Now, it is getting more violent like the countries we left."

In a hardware store, the non-Hispanic co-owner said he had a "strictly neutral" position on the boycott and the county resolution that provoked it, adding that the issue was a "tough, tough fence" to straddle. A customer, who owns a heating and air-conditioning business, expressed conflicting concerns, feeling "invaded" by a wave of Latino immigrants and worrying about being labeled anti-Latino.

"I have no problem with legal immigrants whatsoever, and I am not a bigot, but this has really affected our life," said the customer, James Edwards. He said that immigrant workers had helped the local economy but that unlicensed immigrant contractors had stolen a lot of business from companies like his. He also said illegal immigrants had created crowded and messy conditions in some neighborhoods.

"Everyone I talk to feels the same way," he added.

The boycott has pitted two sets of activists against each other. Ricardo Juarez, who heads a group called Mexicans Without Borders, has denounced as "racist" the county resolution, passed last month, which would deny services to illegal immigrants and allow police to turn them over to federal authorities. He is leading the boycott and a series of protests to pressure officials into rescinding the measure.

Spearheading the opposition is Greg Letiecq, a computer technician who heads a group called Help Save Manassas. He is passionately opposed to illegal immigration and has spent much of his spare time this week driving past chain stores with a video camera in his truck, hoping to catch members of Juarez's group intimidating shoppers.

"I got a report of an Hispanic male approaching a woman shopper and threatening to write down her license plate," said Letiecq, who was parked outside a Wal-Mart in Manassas, watching the entrance closely. In a neighborhood nearby, he pointed out a group of Latino laborers sitting on milk crates outside a 7-Eleven and then a large house where he said a half-dozen immigrant families lived illegally.

"For a lot of folks, this is just too up close and personal. We are tapping into a huge amount of outrage," he said. "The residential overcrowding is driving people insane. Then there is crime, and lewd behavior that makes them uncomfortable."

In separate interviews, however, county residents tended to express more nuanced and ambivalent opinions. Some suggested that both the resolution and the boycott were excessively harsh cudgels to wield in the county's battles over immigration.

A group of successful Latino businessmen from Virginia is attempting to find a middle ground before the battle lines become too sharply drawn. They plan to meet with county officials this week, hoping to persuade them to focus their efforts against immigrants who commit crimes rather than targeting them on grounds of their legal status.

"We want to minimize the damage. We are organizing in a legal, respectful manner that we think will be more effective than a boycott," said Elmer Arias, a North Virginia restaurant owner and business leader. He said the county resolution would harm businesses that cater to Latinos and inhibit immigrants from reporting crimes.

It was difficult to tell how effective the boycott has been so far, because there was no way to count absent shoppers at county mega-stores. Business was definitely up at small markets such as Mexico Lindo in Manassas, where tortillas and rice sacks were selling fast, but even there some customers said they were worried the boycott would provoke hostility against them.

"People need a voice, but I hate to see things going to extremes," said one Venezuelan man who asked not to be named. "They need to be persecuting the criminals, not the decent people. The thieves hurt us all, and this boycott does, too. It is a worthy cause, but that's not how you win over Americans."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company