Immigration Debate Unites Latinos Of All Classes

Pamela Constable, AP, October 9, 2007

José Marinay wears tailored suits, plays racquetball twice a week and displays photos of family-owned racehorses in his Annandale office. For years, the Colombian-born businessman thought he had little in common with the area’s illegal immigrants, often villagers from Mexico and Central America who sleep 10 to a house and push lawn mowers or scrub pots for a living.

But the battle in Prince William County, where a measure to curb illegal immigration has thrown the Latino community into turmoil, changed his mind.

“This situation has brought together people who never would have sat in one room before,” said Marinay, 50, who owns a real estate settlement company that has offices across Northern Virginia and a mainly Latino clientele. Since the measure was passed in July, he said, business has fallen 80 percent at his Manassas office, and he will probably close it. He also said a sense of growing hostility toward Latino immigrants has affected him.

“I dress well, and I drive a nice car. But on the weekends, when I am in shorts and sandals and I haven’t shaved, I look Latino enough to scare a few folks,” Marinay said. “There is a definite chill in the air. We may be a fragmented community, we may eat or celebrate in different places, but now they are looking at us in the same way. If we don’t unite and work together, we will all sink.”

Sense of siege and solidarity

Although not yet enacted into law, the resolution passed by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors has created a sense of siege and solidarity throughout the county’s wider Latino community of about 30,000. Rumors circulate that people will be arrested if they board buses or drop off their children at school. Some legal residents, who bought homes and opened businesses, expecting to stay for years, say they are thinking of leaving.

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Sponsors and advocates of the resolution assert it is neither anti-Latino nor anti-immigrant. They insist it is aimed at stopping the steady influx of illegal immigrants during the past decade, who they complain are crowding neighborhoods and burdening schools. The measure would deny some services to illegal immigrants and allow local police to turn them over to federal officials.

At first, the region’s Latino community was conflicted in its response, reflecting differences in class, education levels, immigration status, national origin and ideological roots. Within the business community, potential allies saw each other as economic rivals first.

The split was exacerbated by the confrontational actions of a group in Virginia, Mexicans Without Borders, that staged a number of protests against the measure, including a one-week store boycott in August. The group has called for a one-day countywide work stoppage today. Last month, the group put up a huge Liberty Wall in Manassas with a sign that condemns “racism against Hispanics.” The sign was half torn down by vandals last weekend.

Many established Latino immigrants in Northern Virginia said they disapproved of such tactics, saying they feared the efforts would turn community goodwill against them, too. But as the firestorm over illegal immigration has spread, more affluent Latinos in the area, including entrepreneurs from Colombia and Venezuela, have come to realize they have a personal and economic stake in resolving the issue.

Use of lobbying, economic power

In August, a regional Latino business coalition was formed to seek subtler ways to fight anti-immigration measures, such as through personal lobbying and economic power. Coalition leaders said that it was hard to get some entrepreneurs involved but that more are being spurred to action by a mixture of self-interest, guilt and sympathy for those they once considered a lower class of immigrant.

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Ricardo Juarez, a leader of Mexicans Without Borders, said that despite their tactical differences, he has come to appreciate the efforts of Marinay’s committee. At a county hearing last Tuesday, Juarez and several Latino business owners testified against the resolution, using nearly identical arguments and similarly polite tones.

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Ruben Andrade, who owns several cafes and clubs in Prince William, embodies the contradictions that have pulled successful Latinos in several directions on illegal immigration. A war refugee who came to the United States 25 years ago, he worked menial jobs and faced his share of discrimination. Now, he prides himself on running stylish establishments and criticizes Latino laborers who pick fights in bars and throw trash in the streets.

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Fear of arrest, harassment

In Maryland, where attitudes toward immigrants have been more relaxed, at least one measure similar to Prince William’s has been proposed in the city of Frederick, and Latino leaders throughout the state’s suburbs are increasingly worried that the illegal immigration controversy will engulf the region.

A handful of Latino businessmen in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties have joined meetings of the Virginia coalition. Gilbert Mejia, a Salvadoran restaurant owner, was the host of a recent meeting at his La Frontera restaurant in Gaithersburg. He said the fear of arrest and harassment among Latino immigrants has become so widespread that business at his restaurant has fallen sharply this summer.

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In Prince William, many immigrants who have never joined a protest or a committee, but have spent years quietly securing a niche for their families, find themselves drawn to the unfamiliar fray of public debate. Last Tuesday, about 200 Latinos filled an overflow room outside a supervisors meeting in which the July resolution was being discussed, although a final vote was postponed.

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“I have always appreciated this country, and it really upsets me to hear about this law,” said [Jesus] Calva, who spoke briefly at last Tuesday’s hearing. Afterward, he strode outside, sat down on a curb and began to weep in frustration. “Even when I was illegal, I worked hard for everything I got, and I paid a lot of taxes,” he said. “If they don’t like us, why don’t they just say so? I love my home, but I don’t want to live in a place where I am hated.”

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