At Salvadoran event in Virginia, immigration issues on festival-goers' minds

By Stephanie Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 9, 2010

From the sounds of the guitar to the spicy food, the festival celebrating El Salvador's culture reminded Jose of everything he missed about his native country. But he was initially reluctant to come.

The 25-year-old came to Virginia without documents in search of "a new life" and works at construction jobs. He views himself as filling a national need by doing work that he says most U.S. citizens don't want. New local and state legislation aimed at catching illegal immigrants, however, has made him wary of venturing out in public.

"The police can stop you and ask to see your documents," he said in Spanish. "To me, this seems discriminatory against the community."

He was among the more than 1,500 attending the Salvadoran-American cultural festival at the Prince William County Fairground on Sunday, the first of its kind in the Washington area. But event organizers said that the turnout would have been higher if not for the slew of recently introduced laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration in the region.

The day before the festival, Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, announced that Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials will soon release the identities and details of every convicted illegal immigrant taken into custody in the county.

"Americans will be shocked when they realize how many convicted criminal illegal [immigrants] are being released back into our communities and how long their deportation proceedings take," Stewart (R) said in a news release.

Salvadoran culture was on full display at the fairgrounds Sunday. The Salvadoran flag's blue-and-white stripes adorned everything from jerseys to jewelry. In the sweltering heat, vendors stirred vats of horchata, a cold drink flavored with almonds and cinnamon, while families munched on pupusas -- El Salvador's thicker version of the tortilla, filled with cheese and meat. An elevated stage hosted a number of musical acts, including a group of women and men who swayed to the cumbia, a traditional music and dance.

But despite the festivities, many attendees said they could not forget about the policies that they say target and strike fear into their community.

Rosa Arias, 54, an Annandale resident who left San Salvador 35 years ago, said her friends and neighbors who are in the country illegally would be reluctant to attend such events.

"They don't come -- they're afraid of the police. A lot of the police stop you," Arias said. "If you don't have your papers, you go back to immigration and back to the country."

Virginia is known for having some of the nation's toughest policies on illegal immigration. Under an opinion recently issued by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II, police are allowed to question the immigration status of anyone stopped for any reason. And Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) is asking the federal government to allow state troopers to make legal-status checks and refer individuals for deportation.

Under their policy, Prince William police inquire about the citizenship status only of people who are arrested and taken into custody for breaking state or local laws.

As many as 325,000 of the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States reside in Virginia, says the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 435,000 other people in Virginia are not U.S. citizens and are in the state legally.

Erica Granados, a festival volunteer and D.C. resident whose father emigrated from El Salvador, said the laws were intimidating but wouldn't deter her community from reveling in its heritage.

"We're in Virginia, where they least expect us to be," Granados, 19, said. "We're here, and we're not going anywhere."

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