By Bill Turque
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 3, 2007
Carrying American flags and chanting "S?, se puede" ("Yes, we can"), several thousand Latinos rallied at the seat of Prince William County government yesterday to denounce the Board of Supervisors' plan to curb services to illegal immigrants.
Protesters from as far as Minnesota converged on the Sean T. Connaughton Community Plaza for speeches and a two-mile march, organized by Mexicans Without Borders and other immigrant advocacy groups.
"We come in peace," said Karla Makris, 26, a paralegal born in Nicaragua. "We're not stealing. We're not criminals."
On July 10, the Prince William board thrust the county into the middle of the Northern Virginia immigration debate, adopting a resolution directing officials to determine which government services can be lawfully withheld from anyone in the country illegally.
The measure also authorizes Prince William police to ask about residency status if they have probable cause to believe that an individual is in the country illegally. Exactly what constitutes probable cause, and how legal residency would be verified, is still under review by the police.
The county's Latino community responded with a week-long economic boycott, concluding this weekend, targeting businesses deemed hostile to immigrants.
Organizers also announced plans for an Oct. 9 work stoppage in Prince William.
The message at yesterday's late-afternoon protest was that immigrants want what they said everyone else wants, to be left alone to work and raise their families.
"We have come to respond to the ill-conceived and harmful actions to the county, and to say that is wrong," said the Rev. Bob Menard of St. Francis of Assisi Parish in Triangle.
"Everybody is equal here," said Pedro Marquez, 21, a construction worker. "Everybody is here to do work. Our kids are in school. Our parents are working. It's messed up. People are trying to bring Hispanic culture down."
Protesters marched along Prince William Parkway past Prince William County Republican headquarters and a large campaign sign for board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), a leading advocate of the July resolution. One group carried a large plaster effigy of Stewart.
The protesters had support from non-Latino Northern Virginians who marched along with them and some of whom identified with the Latino struggle. "I'm Irish, and I'm from a family of immigrants," said Sissi Curtin of Fairfax County, who said her forebears faced similar bigotry.
"It's the same old people. You know that, and I know that."
Prince William police declined to offer an estimate of the turnout, which informal estimates placed at 5,000 to 7,000.
There were no arrests, and the only major incident along the march route was an engine fire in a pickup, which sent a brief flutter of concern through the crowd as smoke wafted through the air.
It has been difficult to gauge the effectiveness of the boycott, although it seems to have had only a marginal impact on the national chain stores that are its chief targets. Latino customers continue to patronize such businesses as Wal-Mart and Giant and fast-food restaurants.
What is easier to see is that the action has both energized and split Prince William's Latino community. Mexicans Without Borders favors such economic measures as the boycott to push back, and other business leaders seek negotiations with county leaders.
The immigration issue has also driven a wedge between the region's local governments. The Loudoun County Board of Supervisors recently passed a similar, if less exact, version of the Prince William measure. It directs county officials to study which services might be legitimately denied to illegal immigrants and to explore ways to cut off business with companies that hire undocumented workers.
Fairfax County has resisted entreaties from Prince William leaders to follow their example. Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Gerald E. Connolly (D) has said that it is impractical and constitutionally questionable for local governments to undertake immigration enforcement. He said he wants the county to focus on "outcomes and behavior," rather than immigration status, by cracking down on boarding houses and other code violations that can degrade the quality of life in neighborhoods.