Prince William's Folly

It was a May afternoon in Washington’s Meridian Hill Park. Forty-year-old Ricardo Juarez Nava was at a rally in support of immigrants when he saw a neatly dressed man approaching the group. As it turned out, the man, Tyler J. Froatz Jr., was protesting the rally and had brought along an anti-immigration flyer (a crudely drawn illustration of border officers firing on an immigrant with the caption, “THE ONLY WAY TO STOP A FLOOD ...”), and a back- pack with a claw hammer, a Taser, and pepper spray inside. Froatz, who is 24 and a New Jersey native, also had a fully automatic M1 carbine rifle in the trunk of his car.

“He was pushing and trying to fight with me. He had a knife here,” Juarez says, gesturing toward a front pocket in his jeans as he describes Froatz’s efforts to disrupt the pro-immigration rally, which had been organized by a local group Juarez founded called Mexicans Without Borders. After Froatz’s arrest, police discovered a hand grenade, a Molotov cocktail, and 1,000 rounds of ammunition in his Northwest Washington apartment.

On the afternoon of our September inter- view, four months after the assault, Juarez is sitting in a bookstore in Woodbridge, Virginia, sipping coffee. One of 12 children, Juarez was raised in Mexico by his widowed mother, who did laundry and sold firewood to support the family. He attended Mexico City’s School of Sciences and Humanities and came to the United States in April 1995, where he found work in construction. In 2002 he founded Mexicans Without Borders to provide legal advice, counseling, and other kinds of support for immigrants in the Mid-Atlantic region.

For Juarez, it has been a rocky summer. In July, members of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors took aggressive steps against undocumented immigrants in Woodbridge and other cities in the county where Juarez lives. The July 10 county resolution passed by the Prince William Board recommended restricting such public services as access to senior centers for undocumented residents. The still more controversial aspect of the resolution instructs police to check into the immigration status of suspected illegals who have been detained—even for minor traffic violations; previously, police had checked on the immigration status only of those accused of violent crimes.

The resolution is the most stringent anti-illegal immigrant measure to be passed in Virginia. It was first drafted in June with the help of a 1,850-member group called Help Save Manassas, which works to oppose illegal aliens. After the resolution was approved in July, a series of public meetings on the details took place this fall. As the Prospect went to press, the board was still debating how to implement the restriction of services to illegal immigrants and whether to provide training for police in checking on immigration status at a total cost of roughly $14 million; the vote had yet to be scheduled.

Juarez and Mexicans Without Borders, which now has approximately 3,000 members, have been fighting the board’s efforts. They organized a week-long boycott of local businesses that had not supported their organization (the group had asked businesses to display posters) and brought more than 3,000 people to a Sept. 2 rally at the seat of the Prince William County government. During the rally, Juarez stood close to a microphone and—over a frayed sound system— shouted to his followers. “Our constitutional and civil rights are being violated by this resolution,” he said. “We are taking the case to court against the county of Prince William.” The crowd broke into thunderous cheers and applause.

There have been death threats by e-mail, angry phone calls, and accusations from Republican county leaders that Mexicans Without Borders is trying to bully its opponents and whip up fear and hysteria in the Hispanic community. Meanwhile, bloggers and activists are investigating to see if Juarez and his family are legal, and have been posting their (inconclusive) findings on a Web site, Black Velvet Bruce Li, considered “the most influential local blog in Virginia” by some in the anti- illegal immigrant community.

“There are messages by e-mail that say they are going to kill me,” Juarez says. He pulls on the collar of his red, checked shirt, fiddles with one of the buttons, and looks down at the table. “I don’t want anyone to kill me.”

Prince William County is a comfortable, though traffic-clogged, community 30 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. The county, like the rest of the area, has undergone demographic changes. In greater D.C., the Hispanic population has doubled over the past two decades, according to U.S. Census data. In 2005 the Pew Hispanic Center estimated that roughly 250,000 illegal immigrants live in Virginia and, as happens with any dramatic influx of immigrants, they are blamed for an array of problems: crowded elementary school classrooms and hospital emergency rooms; violent gang activity; run-down rental units in residential neighborhoods; even the high cost of diapers for newborns in a hospital maternity ward.

The undocumented immigrants in Prince William County work in construction and restaurants and other parts of the service industry. And while there is no state-by-state breakdown on the employment of undocumented immigrants, an April 2006 Pew Hispanic Center Fact Sheet revealed national employment pat- terns among undocumented workers. More than half of short-term undocumented workers have jobs in construction and service, which includes food preparation and other restaurant work. The rest can be found in farming, fishing, forestry, and various industries. Undocumented workers make an average of $350 per week, as compared with the $930 per week that immigrants who have become citizens take home.

As residential neighborhoods in Woodbridge and other cities in Prince William County absorbed newly arrived immigrants—and elementary school classrooms filled up with Spanish-speaking children—local activists began to push county leaders to take harsh measures against undocumented workers. For many of the activists, the goal was to arrest and deport undocumented residents as quickly as possible.

In some ways, the issues in Prince William County are similar to those being raised in state and local governments across the country. Political leaders are cracking down on immigrant communities and trying to drive them out—imposing fines on landlords who rent to undocumented residents, for example, and penalizing employers who hire them. The situation is some- what different—and for this reason groundbreaking—in Prince William County because county officials are involving police officers in their efforts to rid their community of illegal immigrants. Despite the differences in their approach, all of these ordinances have one thing in common: They are an attempt to enforce federal immigration policy at a local or state level.

In Prince William County, the conflict is sharp. Juarez and other immigrant workers, along with church leaders, a handful of unionists, and left-leaning activists, are on one side. Conservative political leaders—and an eclectic group of bloggers, Ku Klux Klansmen, and the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps—are on the other. Business owners who serve mainly immigrants are opposed to the resolution because they will lose (and are already losing) business; many business owners who employ undocumented workers, including construction companies, also oppose the resolution. Everybody talks of war. Individuals on one side, and possibly both, are armed.

John Steinbach, 60, a “permanent substitute teacher” and a Mexicans Without Borders volunteer, says the group admires the organizing principles of the Zapatista rebels, who fought the Mexican government in 1994. Roughly 300 volunteers for Mexicans Without Borders, which does not embrace Zapatista-style violence, translate government documents into Spanish, hand out flyers, and work to defeat the Prince William resolution. With assets of roughly $2,000 at any given moment, Mexicans Without Borders partners with other organizations such as the Woodbridge Workers Committee and local churches to offer English-language classes and distribute food and winter coats, roughly 250 each year. In an odd alliance, the police, too, seem to oppose aspects of the resolution, as they believe it will make their jobs harder. County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane, who has been hostile toward the resolution, told the Prince William board of “a potential chilling effect on witness cooperation and victim-witness cooperation.”

On the other side, the most public face of the pro-resolution forces is Greg Letiecq, a blond, deeply tanned, 43-year-old information technologies consultant and ex-infantryman in the Maryland National Guard who is president of Help Save Manassas and the lead blogger on Black Velvet Bruce Li. On an afternoon in September, Letiecq sits in a Taco Bell near his house, wearing a “USA” T-shirt and talking about his concerns for the safety of his daughters, ages 5 and 2, in their neighborhood. He looks out the window. Cars whiz past us on suburban Sudley Manor Drive. Someone wearing a Quiznos Sub costume—an enormous, billowing white cup with a red straw—trudges near an intersection. None of it looks particularly dangerous. “In the house down the road, there were transient people living there with a large number of unmarried males,” Letiecq tells me. “A lot of questionable activity. ... Potential drug activity.” He claims, though the resolution is not yet in place, that things have gotten better since its adoption. “Not all the way,” he adds. “But they’re improving.”

Letiecq has a conservative coalition—at local, state, and national levels—at his back. Lawyers working for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a Washington, D.C.–based organization, crafted the language for the county resolution during meetings with Letiecq and other members of his organization, Help Save Manassas. A member of that group, John T. Stirrup Jr., who is also a supervisor on the Prince William County Board, eventually sponsored the resolution.

The Immigration Reform Law Institute is the legal arm of yet another organization, Federation for American Immigration Reform. FAIR has received funding from the Pioneer Fund, a group founded in the 1930s and known for its financing of research that examines whether blacks are genetically inferior to whites. The Ku Klux Klan also surfaced in Manassas in September, leaving around town flyers that warned of “‘gangs, drugs and pornography’ brought by immigrants.”

The presence of the Klan, and the arrest of the armed protestor Tyler Froatz, who claims to be a member of the Herndon Minutemen, raises questions about the role of white suprema- cists, hate groups, and sociopaths in the controversy over undocumented immigrants. FAIR executives, as well as others on their side of the debate, make it clear they do not incorporate fringe elements or condone their actions. “Our SOPs [standard operating procedures] are very clear,” Minutemen director Al Garza explains. “We do not practice carrying weapons at rallies.”

Letiecq says he is appalled by the presence of white supremacists in his neighborhood. Racist policies are contrary to the spirit of this country, he says, and the Klan is “not welcome here.” The issue, he says, is “‘legal’ versus ‘illegal’—who’s got lawful presence and who doesn’t. I’d be equally upset if it were a bunch of Canadians here.” What gets him really worked up, though, is not so much the dark history of the Klan—though he touches on that. (“They should be embarrassed,” he tells me.) Rather, it is the way Klansmen have tried to hone in on his political turf. Now that gets under his skin.

“It just pisses me off. Everyone feels compelled to call the Klan up and ask for their opinion,” he says. “Who cares what those guys say? They haven’t done anything. They never tried to make things better here. We’re working double time, and these guys want to come in and coattail. We didn’t need them before. We certainly don’t need them now.”

Keeping the fight clean of extremists is key for Republicans, who are hoping to capitalize on local anti-immigrant sentiment to win elections in the next cycle. “Things have turned mean for them,” explains Larry J. Sabato, director of the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics in Charlottesville. “They once controlled Virginia lock, stock, and barrel. That isn’t true anymore. It’s truly a competitive purple state.” Hence, immigration. “Those communities that are now Democratic are concerned about immigration. Republicans see it as a way to get some of their votes back,” he adds.

“We need to crack down on illegal immigration,” says Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart, a Republican. “My take is, ‘Look, this is predominantly a federal issue, but we’re on the front line.’” Stewart is a 39-year-old, Polo-clad attorney and a graduate of George- town University’s School of Foreign Service. “My wife is a legal immigrant,” he tells me. (She’s from Sweden.) The day I meet him in his K Street office, he hands me a sheaf of papers from a Sept. 6 House Judiciary Committee immigration hearing at which he testified. “We’ve been getting dozens of phone calls,” he says. “This has caught on like wildfire.”

It is an unanswered question whether the Prince William County resolution, as well as similar efforts in other parts of the country, really will help Republicans gain traction. Sabato says the strategy will backfire at both the state and national level. “The Latino vote is growing over time,” he explains. “It’s about twelve percent of the population but about six percent of the vote. That gap will close.” The increasing clout of His- panic voters, who lean heavily toward Democratic candidates, means conservative Republicans, especially those who support strict anti-immigration policies, will face resistance during election campaigns.

An executive vice president of the Service Employees International Union, Eliseo Medina, agrees. “There’s a feeling that this community is under attack,” Medina says, “and that a lot of it is being driven by the Republican Party. I think that, to their dismay, people are going to remember them at the polls.”

***

Juarez’s work may help ensure that’s true. Juarez meets regularly with small business owners who serve mainly the immigrant community, and many have agreed to give out Mexicans Without Borders flyers in their restaurants and grocery stores. In addition to working 45 hours a week in construction, Juarez also gets out the word of his anti-resolution effort in Spanish- language newspapers and radio and television interviews. He’s hardly alone. One volunteer, Yolanda Marilena Lemus, a 32-year-old administrative assistant at a homeowners’ title company, says she convinced between 15 and 20 friends and family members to attend the September rally at the county government offices. “I personally said, ‘You got to come to this,’” she tells me. Martin Bernal, the owner of El Nopal Grocery Store in Culpeper, says he helped drive 60 people in cars and vans from their homes in Culpeper to the rally.

Mexicans Without Borders has been urging its members to register to vote. Many, however, are non-citizens and cannot. Lacking political clout and a political constituency, Mexicans Without Borders leaders have begun to form informal ties with members of organizations such as the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union; Tenants and Workers United, a grassroots organization committed to economic and social justice in Northern Virginia; and the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers.

More importantly, because the resolution will likely be approved this fall, among Mexicans Without Borders members, judicial means to defeat the resolution are seen as an especially powerful tool. (Every time the word “lawsuit” came up at the rally protestors screamed wildly.) They have been talking with lawyers from the New York–based Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, says legal coordinator Nancy Lyall. In October, a coalition including the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund filed a lawsuit against the county contesting the constitutionality of the resolution. (The more established National Council of La Raza says it does not have formal ties with Mexicans Without Borders. “Some grassroots organizations choose certain tactics that other organizations do not feel comfortable with,” says Flavia Jimenez, a Chicago-based senior policy analyst with La Raza. In other words, says Jimenez, “We’re not litigators.”)

Pro-resolution lawyers and activists are also prepared for a fight in court. Immigration Reform Law Institute lawyers have worked with Letiecq, Stirrup, and others to ensure that carefully chosen language, designed to withstand potential litigation, is used in measures targeting illegal immigrants. The policies, including ordinances in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which refused to allow illegal immigrants to live or work in that community, have attracted attention for elected officials. But the measures don’t seem to stick. In July, a federal judge threw out the Hazleton ordinances, and in Missouri a judge struck down a resolution in Valley Park that had been designed to impose fines on property owners who rent to undocumented immigrants.

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) lawyers had filed lawsuits in Hazleton and Valley Park, as well as in other parts of the country, to contest the measures. In all of the cases, says Omar Jadwat, a New York–based staff attorney who works for the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, the measures were thrown out or scaled back because of the litigation.

“The general principle, constitutionally, is that immigration is the federal government’s concern and state and local governments lack any kind of broad authority to act in the area of immigration,” Jadwat explains. “If we’re going to have a coherent national policy on immigration, we can’t have a patchwork of laws.” The resolution was passed unanimously in July, and most observers of the political process in Prince William County believe chances are high that the members of the county board will go forward with its plan. “I think their minds are already set,” Carlos Aragon, 56, the general manager of Radio Fiesta, tells me. “They’re going to pass the resolution.” For that reason, a lawsuit seems like the most plausible option for people who are dissatisfied with it.

These days, Juarez meets with people who say they have been discriminated against in Northern Virginia—he carries around sheets of paper with dozens of their names and phone numbers in a worn leather satchel. He continues circulating among business owners and the media, and co-hosts meetings of hundreds of volunteers, which are held up to three times weekly during times of “crisis,” as volunteer Steinbach puts it. As Juarez finishes his coffee, he looks tired (his eyes are bloodshot) and anxious about the work ahead of him. He says he believes groups like Help Save Manassas are “promoting hate and racism.”

“The effect of the resolution is fear,” he says. “It’s affecting thousands, and people are leaving this county because of it. The risk is not from me—even though that is what people say. But liberty and civil rights are at risk. I am now afraid because they have taken that direction.”

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