If there is one place where recent immigrants and Americans clash, it is on the road -- in a taxicab.
Joanne Bell, an organizer for the Communication Workers of America, has been working for months to unite nearly 8,000 taxi drivers here in a representative unit to discuss rates and zones with the D.C. Council. One of the most confounding problems, she says, is the conflict between native drivers and those who are foreign-born. "It's a very sensitive issue . . . and something we tell both sides we have time to fiddle with," she said.
"The American drivers are more apt to mention that they think there are too many foreign-born drivers, and the foreign-born drivers think that all Americans discriminate against them," Bell said. "I let them know right away: They're all workers as far as we're concerned."
Tensions rose as the number of renegade, unlicensed drivers increased during the past year. A summer program by police to catch and fine drivers who are not trained and do not have the proper license or cab helped to ease resentment. Yet as police interest and arrests wane, both native and foreign-born drivers say the conflict returns.
"I don't resent them," said Patricia Case, who has been driving a cab in the District for seven years. "I figure if a foreigner is out there, it's because they have a reason and they need the money. But when they don't know the city or they overcharge, it makes us all look bad. And the foreign drivers who are legal agree that that is a problem."
Julius A. George left his native Gambia seven years ago to go to college here and has been driving a cab in the District for three years. He sees the problems arise when he is competing with older cabdrivers, specifically at hotels in the city.
"I deal with them every day and I know there is some resentment. They think we are different and, if they have a problem, instead of handling things rationally, they say, 'Oh, he's a foreigner.'
"I've had other cabdrivers jump me in line. They know I'm a foreigner. The average African would not do anything. They say, 'I'm not home. I can't do anything.' But I don't let it go. I tell the other cabdriver that is my passenger. Because an American driver would stand up for his rights."
Lynn Williams, 38, has been driving a cab for nine years. He acknowledges some resentment exists but says it is directed against those who don't know the rules of the road.
"There are concerns that the foreigners are messing up the business. They don't know the business and they don't know the zones. But it's really a problem of different background and a communication gap . . . . I try to bridge the gap.