By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 25, 2007
Latino immigrants and lawyers in Prince William County are trying to calm community panic and spread accurate information, urging people to stay and defend their rights in the aftermath of new county measures aimed at keeping out illegal immigrants.
Radio stations and hotlines are fielding calls from immigrants asking whether it is safe to drive cars or visit public parks. Lawyers are advising parents to make emergency plans for their children and assets in case they are detained on suspicion of being in the country illegally. Volunteers are organizing meetings, and one woman, a U.S. citizen from El Salvador, has decided to launch a write-in candidacy for the Board of County Supervisors.
"I feel as if my own community is slamming the door in my face. Someone has to stand up and do something," said Araceli Paname¿o, 42, a longtime Woodbridge resident who took a leave of absence from her job in Washington last Thursday to explore the possibility of running in the election next month.
"I could sell my house and say I am fed up, but this county is my home," she said. "I want to stay and try to change the environment."
Ten miles away, Mirabel Martinez, 25, sat on her doorstep last Thursday afternoon, phoning a list of volunteers to plan a strategy meeting at a taco restaurant. She, too, is a legal immigrant and homeowner from El Salvador who lives in a quiet county neighborhood. She, too, said she had felt a new sting of hostility, even from a local church, which demanded proof of residency when she went to pick up donated food for a needy friend.
"I showed them my voter registration card, and they said it was not enough," Martinez said. "I am here legally. But I have a lot of relatives and friends who are still illegal, and I can imagine how scared they are. I want to tell them to not be afraid and try to live normally, but to be careful and not do things like drive with false licenses. We can't be defeatist. We have to stay and fight."
With confusion and misinformation swirling through the Latino community, several legal aid groups printed fliers, offered phone advice and held free public seminars last week to explain to Prince William immigrants what their rights are, even if they entered the United States illegally, and what the new county policies would and would not do.
For example, the groups said, federal law permits all children in the United States to attend public school and all sick or injured people to seek emergency medical treatment, regardless of their legal status. The Prince William measures would deny illegal immigrants only a list of relatively minor services, such as access to free drug and alcohol counseling.
Lawyers and advocacy groups are also trying to reassure the Latino community that the provisions enabling county police to detain illegal immigrants and turn them over to federal officials will not take effect until at least early next year, after a police training program. They said many immigrants are convinced that police might begin setting up checkpoints immediately.
"We are telling people: 'Don't react in haste. Don't run away and abandon your houses,' " said Ricardo Juarez, a Woodbridge resident and a leader of the Virginia group Mexicans Without Borders, which has organized numerous protests against the policies. "Let's wait and evaluate. Let's see what happens in court." Several advocacy groups have filed suit against the Prince William measures in U.S. District Court.
Lisa Johnson Firth, an immigration lawyer in Manassas, said her firm is advising callers and clients about how to prepare for the possibility of being detained and deported.
"They need to have a plan. They should have money in the bank, emergency transportation, someone who can care for their children, someone who knows where their documents are," said Firth, who was handing out legal rights fliers in a church basement last Thursday night. "Once they are detained and may be deported, everything becomes much more difficult."
Working with other rights groups, Firth's office has also printed pocket cards immigrants can carry that say they want to remain silent and to ask for an interpreter. She said that even illegal immigrants are entitled to full due process, including the rights to call a lawyer and request a search warrant for their homes.
Yolanda Lemus, a legal immigrant who works for a real estate office in Manassas, spent several evenings last week answering a hotline that was set up after the Prince William board passed the original resolution against illegal immigrants in July. She said Spanish-speaking callers have asked whether it is safe to enter the county in a car, to enter a public park or to keep a doctor's appointment.
"People are mainly worried about chance encounters with the police," Lemus said. "We tell them not to panic, but to prepare for the worst." She also said that some English-speaking callers had said they wanted to volunteer to help immigrant groups but that others had made insulting and vulgar comments. "We call them nasty-grams, and we try to ignore them," she said.
Although the Prince William measures were aimed at deterring illegal immigration, many Latino families in the county, as in the general Washington region, are made up of legal and illegal immigrants, and the new policies have created a number of potential problems for them. Some families have split mortgages or businesses among legal and illegal members. Many illegal parents have U.S.-born children in county schools, and some kept their children home last week for fear of being discovered.
Norman Rodriguez, a legal immigrant from Guatemala who co-owns a restaurant in Manassas, said that he is part of a business association that is urging its members to stay but that some are either undocumented or have partners who are. "If they don't have papers, it will be much harder," he said. "Out of 100, only 10 will stay and fight."
Another large category of Latino residents in the area, including thousands of Central Americans, consists of those who entered the country illegally but have obtained temporary amnesty or permanent legal residency.
One of them is Paname¿o, who crossed the Rio Grande as a teenager with her mother and brothers in 1981, fleeing the civil war in El Salvador. She grew up in Arlington County, cleaned office bathrooms after school and earned a degree from Catholic University. Later, she became a U.S. citizen and went to work for a national organization that fights housing discrimination and predatory lending.
The longtime Prince William resident said that although she had encountered scrutiny when trying to vote in past county elections, she had felt at home until recently, when drivers began shouting insults in traffic after noticing her vanity license plate, an abbreviated version of "El Salvador."
On Oct. 17, she said, she was stunned by the cold shoulder the board of supervisors turned to the entreaties of Latino immigrants, who testified that the county policies would separate families and destroy their lives.
"I came here as an undocumented person. But I respect the democratic process, and I believe we all have the right to participate in it," she said, explaining why she decided to enter county politics at a time of intense division and hostility. "There is a feeding frenzy to blame immigrants for other problems. We pay mortgage taxes, sales taxes, payroll taxes. A lot of us can't vote, but we all contribute, and we need a new voice."