By Pamela Constable
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 9, 2007; Page A01
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."
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.
"When we came to Manassas 20 years ago, it was a beautiful place. We were full of enthusiasm and optimism. But in the last three months, that has all gone away," said Carlos Alvarado, 45, a Salvadoran immigrant whose variety store sells fresh corn tamales, pi¿atas and frilly girls' dresses. Many customers are too broke or scared to shop, he said. "Everyone is talking about moving to Maryland or North Carolina, and I am almost bankrupt."
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.
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.
"This is definitely not business as usual. If people can't buy groceries, they can't buy cars or houses," said Marinay, a coalition official. Other members work in real estate, banking, entertainment and insurance. "We are a wealthy group, and we have invested millions in this region," he said. "Why can't we get these people off our backs? It's our own fault for not being united."
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.
"We can march. They can lobby. We are each doing our part," Juarez said later. "We all want to solve the problem, and we all have to coexist in the community."
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.
"We need to educate our people," Andrade said. "If your neighbor asks you to pick up your garbage, you don't tell them to go to hell. You need to learn English and respect the rules." On the other hand, he said, "this law will hurt the entire community. It is not against illegal immigrants; it is against all Latinos, and we must fight it together."
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.
"Look at this place. Normally, we would be full for lunch," said Mejia, gesturing around a room full of empty tables. "People are afraid the attitude from Prince William will drift here, that Maryland will be the next target. I have been in this country 27 years, and I've invested hundreds of thousands of dollars. We need to know what's coming our way."
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.
One was Jesus Calva, 40, who lives with his wife and two children in Lake Ridge, a woodsy townhouse community. Calva entered the United States illegally as a teenager and started working as a tree trimmer for $3 an hour. Today, he makes $27 an hour with a large construction company, and he helped rebuild the Pentagon after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack. On his living room wall is a certificate of thanks signed by former defense secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.
"I have always appreciated this country, and it really upsets me to hear about this law," said 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."