Providing a Voice for the Misunderstood

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Richard Cabellos, a South Riding resident who was born in Peru and raised in Fairfax County, has worked on behalf of immigrant communities in Virginia in various jobs and volunteer positions. In an e-mail interview with, he discussed his involvement in hot-button immigration issues in the region. Here are excerpts.

Q You are a director of Community Connections Outreach for the Fairfax County Park Authority. What does the job entail?

A I am one of the two coordinators the FCPA hired in 2006 to build bridges to the Latino and Korean communities of Fairfax County. Community Connections is a comprehensive outreach and education strategy developed by the FCPA to listen to, engage and build trust with increasingly diverse park users.

You have been a member of El Pueblo Unido (People United). Tell us about the philosophy and activities of the organization.

The original El Pueblo Unido organization was started by two young Latino community organizers from Falls Church and Woodbridge and myself. Our first instinct in starting this organization was to bring some common sense to the immigration debate in Northern Virginia, to educate state delegates and senators at the General Assembly in Richmond and to bring about fair and comprehensive laws in the commonwealth.

One aspect that many elected officials failed to address when introducing or supporting legislation was the impact it would have on all communities. Our goal was to provide that knowledge to our elected officials.

Which specific events or concerns caused you to become involved in immigration issues?

The main concern was just a matter of plain social justice for the poor and the misunderstood. I saw honest people who were just trying to feed their families. I saw children just trying to study their hardest. I saw mothers and fathers doing their best to teach their sons and daughters the value of what it is to work hard in this country, because there were no opportunities for them in their own countries. And then I saw these same people used as scapegoats in the media for crime, political wedge issues and divisive and irrational laws.

Worst of all, I saw these people turn voiceless and afraid to defend themselves. I thought someone needed to do something. The immigrant community was grouped together when crime happened and was blamed for things we had nothing to do with. That is not the United States or the commonwealth I grew up in.

The debate over how to treat immigrants who did not come here legally is especially fierce in Northern Virginia. Some seek stringent immigration-law enforcement and bans on government assistance, and others argue that almost all immigrants deserve a clear path to citizenship. How would you summarize your position on handling illegal immigration?

First, let me address the issue of the terminology of "illegal" vs. "undocumented." I feel that when we use the word "illegal," it biases questioning or debate about immigration. For example, when people use "illegitimate child," yes, the child was born under diverse circumstances, but it still is a breathing, living human being, not a criminal. Without understanding that there is a complex immigration system that makes a person undocumented and not an illegal person, I believe that no living, breathing human is illegal.

I do believe there has to be a legal pathway for those individuals who have contributed to our society that ensures that those individuals who have caused harm to our country are not given that opportunity.

As to the issue about government assistance to the undocumented, in reality there is a lot of misinformation out there. Laws have been in place for a long time that reject those without permanent U.S. resident or citizen status for any type of government assistance.

For five years, you were a member of the Virginia Latino Advisory Board. Tell us about the board's activities and your role on it.

My role with the Virginia Latino Advisory Board was to advise and inform the governor on issues important to the Virginia Latino community, advocate for their interests and increase awareness about the contributions made by Latinos in Virginia. We traveled on behalf of the governor to the Eastern Shore, the agricultural south and the mountainous west.

While on the panel, you met with a number of Virginian police chiefs to discuss their departments' relationships with Latino communities. What came of those discussions?

My concerns centered on assuring that public safety officials were made aware of cultural differences and language barriers that exist within the Latino community. These open dialogues with police chiefs filled the gap between the Latino community and our public service providers.

What do you think is the best model for the relationship between law enforcement and immigrants?

We need more Spanish-speaking deputies on the streets and in the community policing in our neighborhoods, so when a crime happens immigrant communities are not afraid to speak up for fear of immigration status checks.

You recently launched what you are calling a Neighborhood Listens program in Loudoun Countywith an unlikely pair of allies, two other activists whose views on immigration differ from yours. Can you give our readers an update on how it's going?

It's an amazing collaboration [among], as you mentioned, unlikely allies. The Loudoun Neighborhood Agreement is a grass-roots effort by Loudoun County residents that focuses on fostering direct, informal communication networks in our communities to promote quality of life for everyone who lives here. We believe the vast majority of county residents, of all cultural backgrounds, share a similar desire to live in safe neighborhoods where community standards are upheld.

There is nothing simpler than that, and the response from the public has been phenomenal. We have had e-mails and calls of support to translate our Web site into more than two languages. Currently, parts are in Spanish, but the majority is still in English.

Is there a particular place or regular event in Loudoun that you would recommend to friends?

I love what is booming where I reside in South Riding, which is the tantalizing [mix] of ethnic restaurants from India, Thailand, China, El Salvador, Mexico and Italy. But even better is the many landscaped and well-manicured foot and bike trails and community parks in South Riding, which strives to keep its rural, small-town appeal, and where I can burn off all the calories from those diverse restaurants!

You're a fairly public citizen. Tell us something your friends and colleagues don't know about you.

Well, most of me is out there in the public eye, but I think no one really knows about my desire to run for public office in the future. I hope to do this soon, after my wife and I have a family and have acquired the resources to run.

UP CLOSE is a feature in which Loudoun County residents talk about their jobs, interests and experiences in the community. Have a suggestion on whom we should interview? Send it to

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