Pr. William's Mothers of Dissension
Friday, January 2, 2009
The months-long battle over Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigration has largely subsided, but not before giving rise to a potent new force in local politics: stay-at-home moms.
About a dozen mothers who banded together to battle the county's hard-line position on immigration are now among the area's most civically engaged residents. They attend board meetings and influence votes. They have created an active blog and are serving on county advisory boards and commissions.
And they do much of it with children in tow. Alanna Almeda's girls practice gymnastics in the hall while she listens to county supervisors debate. Elena Schlossberg testifies with her 3-year-old, Rachel, on her hip, and her 6-year-old, Eli, hanging onto her leg.
The women say they provided a tempered, alternative voice when emotions on illegal immigration ran hot. Now they want that approach to permeate other debates on topics that interest them, such as preserving more land in the face of development.
"I wouldn't call myself a leader," said Schlossberg, 40, of Haymarket. "But in a crowd of people, I was never afraid to make my voice heard, even if I stood alone. You don't have to be an expert. You just have to be able to say, 'That doesn't sound right.' "
Almeda and Schlossberg were the first of their group to get involved. The two crossed paths in spring 2006 when Almeda joined efforts to conserve 230 acres of county park land. The women reconnected later that year to fight Dominion Virginia Power's plan to build a 65-mile high-voltage power line through rural Northern Virginia.
When the illegal immigration battle started to flare, Almeda knew right away that she wanted her voice to be heard. Her husband, Rosendo, gained permanent residency in 1996, four years after they got married.
"It was as if they were saying he wasn't making a contribution or worthy of being here," she said of the county's foray into illegal immigration. "It was like saying it was a mistake to allow him to gain legal status and it would be a mistake to do it for this new group."
But she was surprised when she saw Schlossberg at a July board meeting, where proposed immigration laws were on the agenda. "We're probably not going to be on the same side on this one," Almeda, 39, of Gainesville, said at first. "Don't be so sure," Schlossberg replied.
Katherine M. Gotthardt joined the fray, too. Last summer, Gotthardt's daughters were on the swings, singing a rhyme they had heard on the playground: "I don't want to go to Mexico no more. . . . There's a big, fat guy at the door. . . . If you open it up, he'll [urinate] on the floor. . . . I don't want to go to Mexico no more."
She admonished her daughters. A few weeks later, she heard that immigrant parents were afraid to send their children to school for fear they would be deported.
"It was clear the culture the county created was affecting the kids," said Gotthardt, 39, an educator with a background in English for Speakers of Other Languages. That's when she decided to address the Board of County Supervisors. As an English composition teacher, Gotthardt's expertise is crafting a message. Schlossberg's knack is organizing and identifying elected officials who might be sympathetic to their cause. Almeda, a programmer for the U.S. Department of Transportation until she had her youngest, brings technical know-how.