Raids throw shadow over immigration reform rally

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 22, 2010

In the VIP section behind the big stage with a majestic view of the U.S. Capitol, Esvin Blanco, Oved Vigil and Edwin Mazariegos showed the ankle bracelets they must wear beneath their baggy jeans so U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can keep track of them before they face possible deportation in coming weeks.

Onstage a few yards away, Carlos Luna wore an American flag as a cape in support of his brother, Mauricio, caught in the same series of raids 11 days ago. And Cesar Guanoquiza took the microphone to make his public speaking debut, in honor of a nephew, a brother and a cousin who were detained.

"We are not criminals," Guanoquiza declared. "We are workers here to push this country forward!"

Last week, the detainees had been behind bars in Maryland on suspicion of immigrating illegally to this country. But on Sunday afternoon during the March for America, they were hailed by cheering thousands on the Mall as the human face of the need for immigration reform.

There is, of course, another view.

"I understand why they use people like this as props," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, as word spread before the march that newly released detainees would be featured in the program.

"We've made immigration policy for too long on these wrenching anecdotes," said Krikorian, who favors tighter restrictions on immigration.

Victim, criminal, hard-working breadwinner -- the illegal immigrant is the ambiguous symbol at the heart of the debate. And raids, in which immigration agents burst into workplaces and arrest suspected illegal immigrants, are the point at which the debate ceases to be abstract. Lines are drawn, sympathy must take sides.

The recent raids at two popular Maryland restaurants and other locations have created human and economic ripple effects that have washed over immigrant and American families from the Washington region to Central and South America. The implications even reached the Obama administration, where officials scrambled to explain the timing of the actions taking place on the home turf of pro-immigration activists, who were in the midst of planning the march.

One of the themes they had settled upon: "Stop the raids."

The three immigrants wearing ankle bracelets couldn't stay for the whole march. The bracelets' batteries were running low. If they didn't recharge them, immigration agents would be after them again.

The first time had been enough.

CONTINUED     1                 >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company