Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Call is on for immigration policy reform, protesters say

Rally at day-labor center draws about a dozen opponents; organizers say it’s only the beginning

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
Counter-protesters (foreground) made a vocal presence Saturday during a rally outside the county’s employment center for day laborers on Crabbs Branch Way organized by residents who oppose the county government’s support of undocumented workers.
The heat surrounding the debate over government support of illegal immigrants was turned up a bit Saturday as the first-ever protest of one of the county’s three employment centers for day laborers took place in Shady Grove.

The activists who organized the protest say they are helping to turn the tide of public opinion in Montgomery County as other jurisdictions across the nation are enacting restrictive immigration laws.

‘‘You haven’t seen anything yet. We will generate a lot more momentum,” said Chuck Floyd, a 56-year-old security consultant from Kensington who was among about a dozen protesters outside the county’s day-laborer employment center on Crabbs Branch Way.

‘‘We will force the issue and make sure the public understands that it’s not just about a poor worker who needs money for his family,” he said.

Waving American flags and holding posters that railed against the county’s support for illegal immigrants, the protesters said the federal government’s failure to enact immigration reform has cleared the way for the battle to be waged on a local level.

Organized by Help Save Maryland and the Maryland Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, two immigration-reform groups, the protest drew residents like Alice and Dave Spivock, retirees from Aspen Hill who have lived in the county for 45 years and believe that public sentiment is starting to change.

‘‘I do believe that it’s now changing, because people are just getting disgusted with what’s going on here,” said Alice Spivock, 73, gesturing toward the center 100 yards away.

The couple was joined in Saturday’s three-hour protest by several others, including a self-employed communications consultant who resents that illegal immigrants can avoid paying income tax; a disabled veteran of the Korean War who wants the country’s border closed down and illegal immigrants immediately deported; and a labor economist from Wheaton who says the county centers — the one on Crabbs Branch Way and others in Wheaton and Silver Spring — create ‘‘a lawless labor market.”

For most of the morning, the protesters numbered about a dozen, peaking at 19 late in the rally.

They were outnumbered 2 to 1 by a group of younger counter-protesters who lined up opposite the protesters on Crabbs Branch Way.

With banners and a megaphone, the counter-protesters were tireless in their demonstration.

‘‘No human being is illegal!” they chanted in Spanish and English, while also shouting ‘‘Minutemen, KKK, racist bigots go away!”

The counter-protesters almost continuously taunted and insulted the protesters with profanity-laced tirades, at one point drawing cautionary instruction from police who monitored the situation.

The protesters ignored the counter-protesters.

There were no arrests or confrontations during the protest, and three workers were hired for jobs.

Despite the low turnout, organizers of the protest insist the event marks the beginning of a groundswell of opposition to county policies that support illegal immigrants with taxpayer dollars.

The number of opponents to the county policy is ‘‘snowballing,” said Brad Botwin, a Derwood resident who was spurred to action in January when County Executive Isiah Leggett announced a plan to build the temporary employment center in Shady Grove. Botwin helped found the group Help Save Maryland earlier this year as an offshoot of Help Save Virginia.

The goal is to eliminate all government funding for Casa of Maryland, the group that operates the county’s three day-laborer centers, Botwin said.

But for Casa and the day laborers, Saturday was ‘‘business as usual,” said Gustavo Torres, Casa’s executive director, as he watched from the trailer’s deck.

‘‘If it was 500 or 1,000 people [protesting], then maybe that would mean something. But 10 or 12? No, I don’t think so,” he said, brushing aside the notion that restrictive laws recently passed in Loudoun and Prince William counties in Virginia could win favor here.

‘‘It’s very clear Montgomery County is a progressive county, a county where we welcome everybody, regardless of race and immigration status,” he said.

But because day laborers are the most visible and vulnerable segment of the county’s illegal immigrants, they will continue to bear the brunt of the ire, said Rosa Cozano, a 22-year-old student at the University of Maryland College Park from Washington, D.C., who helped organize the counter-protest.

‘‘The important thing was to be out here, to show the workers that we are in solidarity with them,” she said, taking a break from the megaphone. ‘‘We wanted to be a presence so that they would know that not all the people of the United States are against them.”

As the issue intensifies in Montgomery, Leggett (D) has been resolute that he will not shift the county’s stance in either direction. He was unwavering at two public forums last week, saying he will not follow Virginia’s lead in regards to more restrictive laws. But he also recently rebuffed a push by Latino community leaders seeking to have county police disregard federal immigration warrants.