Immigrant shop owners in Centreville divided over proposed day-laborer site

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The vibrant mix of immigrants whose shops flank the Giant supermarket in Centreville have worked for years to get where they are. They own homes, support Little League teams and attend community meetings, where they speak with the accents of India and Guyana, Korea and Bangladesh.

A few yards across the sunbaked parking lot of the Centreville Square Shopping Center is another tale of immigrant America. Unemployed men from Central America, many of whom are in the country illegally, appear on the sidewalk each day, hoping that the driver of a passing car will pull up and offer them a few twenty-dollar bills for a day's work.

The relationship between the two groups had been uneasy for months when the shopping center's owner, Albert J. Dwoskin, proposed creating a site for the day laborers on an unused portion of land, staffed by church volunteers. Arguments erupted among people who fear that the center would draw more illegal immigrants to the area and others who say that they are already there and that the center would be a more orderly way for them to find work.

The controversy has put the strip center's foreign-born shop owners in a delicate position: Having gone through the immigration process themselves, the merchants can understand the day laborers' desire to improve their lives. At the same time, many merchants say the presence of the workers is a threat to their own American dream.

"It's hurting our business; customers are scared to come to the shopping center," said Satish J. Satija, a naturalized U.S. citizen from India who owns Tippy's Taco.

Last year, one of the day laborers barged in, drunk, to the Baskin-Robbins owned by Guyanese-born Rayman Hamid, 47, cursing and scaring the families sitting at his tables. Hamid, who became a U.S. citizen 20 years ago, called the police. The man, an illegal immigrant, was deported, Hamid said, but he returned a few months later looking for Hamid, who had stepped out; police were called, and the man was barred from the shopping center.

To forestall such incidents, the merchants agreed to chip in for extra security to keep the day laborers on the other side of the parking lot. Hamid recounted the story to explain why he is so opposed to a site for day laborers.

"As an immigrant I feel for them, I care for them," he explained. "If a guy falls out there, I'll care for him, I'll bring him water, I'll even shelter him. At the same time, why should I pay all this extra money for an armed guard? I'm selling ice cream; why do I need an armed security guard for selling ice cream?"

Most polls of immigrants don't ask their legal status, so it is hard to assess legal immigrants' views of illegal immigrants, polling experts say. For many of the country's 28 million foreign-born legal residents and naturalized citizens, the issue is personal and complicated.

To Satija, breaking the law to cross the border is "not right. I came in legally. I had to wait two years to get my papers done," he said. "They're taking away the jobs from our kids who were born and raised here, and taxpayers' money is going to them."

Ethnic empathy

Akim Alam, 49, a naturalized citizen from Bangladesh who owns a Ledo Pizza restaurant, agreed that the day laborers' presence has hurt business, but he doesn't blame the men.

"I feel for them," he said. "They're hardworking people. They're good people. They don't mean to hurt anyone, but they need a job."

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