By Nick Miroff and Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, November 4, 2007
Opponents of Prince William County's plan to target illegal immigrants tried marches, a boycott and a one-day strike. They organized protest caravans with hundreds of cars and turned out ever-larger crowds for county board meetings. When the plan went before supervisors for a final vote Oct. 16, scores of mostly Hispanic residents lined up to deliver tearful, urgent testimony during a 12-hour public comment period.
All the supervisors -- six Republicans and two Democrats -- voted to push ahead with the measures anyway.
The clash over illegal immigration in Prince William has placed several cultural differences on display in recent months. But perhaps none was as stark as the two competing political strategies that drove the debate and shaped public perception, one rooted in a tradition of street protests, the other largely invisible and electronic.
The strategies were deployed by the two organizations that channeled the fears and frustrations of divided county residents to emerge with the loudest voices: Help Save Manassas, which helped draft the county's anti-illegal immigrant policy and applied steady pressure for its adoption, and Mexicans Without Borders, an immigrant advocacy group that deemed the measures racist and took to the streets to say so.
The contest was a study in political contrasts. And in the end, the quiet, coordinated, Internet-savvy lobbying efforts of the pro-crackdown camp won over the chants of "¿S¿ se puede!" (Yes, we can!) and the mass mobilization techniques of their opponents.
Greg Letiecq, the conservative blogger and activist who is president of Help Save Manassas, said his rivals' strategy didn't translate to the suburban environs of Prince William.
"That's not the way politics is done in the United States," he said, calling the rallies and protests by his opponents "a political engagement model from Mexico."
Few members of Help Save Manassas were still present at 2:30 a.m. Oct. 17, when county supervisors voted to deny certain services to illegal immigrants and ramp up police enforcement of immigration laws. But the mostly Latino crowd that stayed until the end fell into hushed bewilderment when the outcome was announced. The arithmetic itself was a stunning blow: Despite a crowd of more than 1,000 opponents of the measures and hundreds of heartfelt pleas and desperate appeals, they didn't win a single vote.
The supervisors hadn't listened, they protested. It seemed as if officials' minds were already made up, they said.
And for the most part, they were right.
"No one changed our opinion with their testimony," said Supervisor John D. Jenkins (D-Neabsco). "I can be persuaded to have sympathy for people. I can't have sympathy for anyone who breaks the law."
That view was firmly shared by every member of the Board of Supervisors, Jenkins said. The board's decision to defer action at a previous meeting was the result of concerns about the county's financial situation, he said, not a sign of uncertainty. If anyone thought the board was going to backtrack, "that was a totally erroneous opinion," Jenkins said.
Though outnumbered at the Oct. 16 meeting, Letiecq's members had fired off 10,000 e-mails and 1,000 faxes in the lead-up to the vote -- so many that lawmakers had to unplug their machines. County officials reported that 85 to 90 percent of the correspondence they received endorsed the crackdown.
Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who introduced the plan for the crackdown in June, said those in favor of it were "well-organized," while those opposed were "well-orchestrated."
Most of supporters' outreach "was done through e-mails. It proved to be effective, in terms of sheer numbers," Stirrup said. Of opponents' effort he said, "It seems like it was well orchestrated to turn out that large a crowd."
Following the defeat, Mexicans Without Borders coordinator Ricardo Juarez stood by his group's tactics, saying they were chosen democratically through community assemblies held after plans for the crackdown were announced. He rejected the idea that marches, protests and other measures were ill-suited for Prince William politics, even though the group's boycott and the one-day strike had scant effect on the local economy.
"The American people express themselves by marching," he said in Spanish. "I've seen a lot of marches in Washington, D.C., that have had nothing to do with immigrants."
Although Letiecq and Help Save Manassas worked directly with supervisors to develop the policies, Juarez said his group's attempts to sit with county leaders were rebuffed. He said the board, which is all white, might have been more sympathetic if it more accurately reflected Prince William's ethnic diversity.
"There's nothing more we could have done," Juarez said. "If there was a failure here, it was the authorities' failure to listen to us."
Although Mexicans Without Borders was built mostly through word-of-mouth networks and old-fashioned handbill advertising, Letiecq said he built Help Save Manassas on the model developed by the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, of which he is a member.
"We get people to step up and do their own lobbying," he explained. "We educate them, keep them informed and get them engaged with phone calls, faxes, e-mails, and by showing up at supervisors' time."
The group has also wielded Tuesday's election to its advantage. Although the measures were first proposed by Stirrup, board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) became the biggest public champion of the crackdown, running his reelection campaign on the slogan "Fighting Illegal Immigration." Letiecq described Stewart's conversion to his group's cause as "the ultimate Gandhi moment," a galvanizing realization for the candidate.
Since then, Letiecq and Help Save Manassas have pressed to make the illegal immigration issue a test for area candidates -- crafting voters' guides, sponsoring candidate forums and threatening incumbent supervisors with electoral defeat.
In contrast, the crackdown's opponents acknowledged they were hurt by a lack of electoral clout, as far fewer are citizens and therefore eligible to vote. But Juarez said county officials showed an "undemocratic" favoritism toward one part of the community over another by disregarding their concerns. The supervisors "represent the entire community, not just those who are eligible to vote," he said.
Since the Oct. 16 meeting, Latino leaders in the region have redoubled their efforts to increase turnout on Election Day and urge Latino candidates to run for office. One Woodbridge resident, Aracely Panameno, has announced her candidacy as a write-in challenger to Jenkins, who had been running unopposed.
Letiecq is looking beyond the election with a plan to continue spreading Help Save Manassas's message and model across the commonwealth. "Once we've created the structure, we can get people involved from across the political spectrum," he said.
Geography and firsthand experience have shaped views on illegal immigration, Letiecq said, not politics. "When you have an overcrowded house with day laborers on your street, you want something done about it," he said.
"We've gotten folks who don't normally get engaged in the political process to get very engaged, very quickly."