Latinos Unite To Turn Fear Into Activism

Pamela Constable, Washington Post, July 28, 2007

Latinos in Prince William County, angered and panicked by a county resolution to crack down on illegal immigrants, are swiftly banding together against what they see as an assault on their community. They vowed this week to block the resolution through a boycott, a petition drive and possibly a labor strike or lawsuit.

At packed public meetings in three towns this week, organizers signed up volunteers, circulated petitions, set up a hotline for reports of discrimination and announced a campaign of phone calls and e-mails to county officials. They also said they would organize caravans to visit Loudoun County and other communities where Latinos feel targeted.

On Thursday night in Manassas, more than 1,000 Latino residents voted with raised fists and cheers to stage a one-week boycott of all non-immigrant businesses in Prince William at the end of next month. The crowd first met in a church, then grew so large it had to move to a park outside. Latinos in Woodbridge and Dumfries also voted this week to stage the boycott and other actions.

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The resolution in Prince William was unanimously approved July 10 by supervisors; this fall the board will define how the policy change will be implemented. It seeks to deny some public services to illegal immigrants and allow local police officers and civilian officials to question people about their legal status, if there is probable cause, and notify federal immigration authorities. A similar resolution was approved in Loudoun County, and measures are being considered in other Virginia jurisdictions, such as Culpeper.

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“This law is built on hate and racism,” said Ricardo Juarez, 40, a construction worker from Woodbridge and coordinator of a Virginia group called Mexicans Without Borders, who was the main speaker at the three meetings. “It can affect every one of us, and we have to defeat it. . .. Will people be asked for documents in libraries or parks or schools? If a woman is pregnant and goes to the hospital, is there a risk that the staff will report her to immigration?”

Backers of the Prince William resolution insist that their goal is to reduce crime and public costs associated with illegal immigrants. However, some residents have complained of feeling inundated by Latinos, who have been drawn to job opportunities in the growing region. Some say the newcomers are crowding homes, draining public services and changing the local culture.

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But many legal Latino residents at the three meetings said they feared the resolution would also make them targets of police harassment and official hostility. They said they believed its true aim is to make life difficult for Latinos.

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Previous efforts to stage boycotts on behalf of immigrant causes have had mixed results in the Washington area. Last year, when national immigrant groups organized a boycott to protest deportations, some local leaders opposed participating, but Juarez’s group led a construction-work slowdown and the temporary closure of some Latino shops in Northern Virginia.

This time, the proposed boycott appears to be carefully planned and to have wide community support. At the Manassas meeting, Juarez and other leaders issued specific instructions to families to stock up on milk and gas before the Aug. 27-Sept. 3 boycott, to buy school supplies in neighboring Alexandria or Fairfax County, to avoid large chain supermarkets and mega-stores and to patronize smaller, Latino-owned markets instead. Organizers passed out plastic bags of pens along with the petition against the resolution and taped up signs with phone numbers and e-mail addresses where people could express their views.

Organizers also said that if their efforts fail, they will consider a one-day labor strike, and volunteer lawyers will prepare lawsuits to challenge the resolution as unconstitutional and discriminatory.

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Despite the renewed activism, Latino leaders said several factors could still prevent immigrants from taking part. Illegal immigrants might be reluctant to appear at public events or fill out documents. (Leaders at the Manassas rally said people could sign the protest petitions without revealing their addresses.) And legal immigrants who have achieved financial and social prominence might not want to be associated with a movement to defend illegal immigrants.

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