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Manassas: ghost town or paradise?

08.06.08 | Comment?

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On our first day on the road, we arrived early afternoon in Manassas, Virginia, not far from Washington D.C. Our goal was to revisit the intense and controversial debate on immigration that has been taking place there in recent times.

The conflict resulted in what could be seen as a clear defeat for the pro-immigrant side when the Prince William County supervisors launched an illegal immigration crackdown whose outstanding feature is a resolution allowing local law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of people they suspect of committing a crime or midsdemeanor (even jaywalking.) Officers can also report undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement for deportation processing.

Since then, the Latino population in the county appears to have plummeted.

As soon as we arrived, I met Teresita Jacinto, a spokeswoman for Mexicanos Sin Fronteras-Mexicans Without Borders.

Teresita Jacinto, Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, Manassas, Virginia

Teresita Jacinto at 9500 Liberty St., “El Muro de la Calle Libertad.” (More photos here)

I interviewed her in front of what people in Manassas call The Wall — and those supporting immigrants regardless of their status call El Muro de la Calle Libertad. It was painted on the side of a burnt-down house by Mexican-born owner Gaudencio Fernández. In the wall’s strong message, he calls Prince William County “the national capital of intolerance.” [Read the full text in this photo.] Fernández was on vacation in Mexico, unfortunately for me.

The wall has been the subject of controversy and the target of attacks. As you’ll read on this story, Fernández has to go to court after his vacation. But I was more concerned with understanding its message.

Fernández underlined his and other Latin Americans’ indigenous heritage. He says “European Americans… were the first illegal aliens” and they “would rather have a ghost town than live among Native Americans.”

That, indeed, seems to have been the result.

Jacinto, who was born in a Texan homestead and is a Spanish-language grade school teacher, said the number of students who are children of immigrants decreased noticeably this year. In previous years, February, when construction work in the area starts to pick up after the dead of winter, was signaled by the arrival of some 600 new students. “This year, there were 650 fewer students,” Jacinto said. “They left.”

Some blocks in Manassas and other PWC communities look like “ghost towns,” she added. The foreclosure crisis only came to add more empty houses. (My interview with Jacinto will be available on our podcast soon. See buttons to the left to suscribe on iTunes or other readers.)

The next day, as we had lunch at an empty La Antorcha Restaurante y Pupusería, I asked the lone employee, Salvadoran Beatriz Monge, 21, whether the place was always so quiet at lunch time.

Beatriz Monge, La Antorcha Restaurant, Manassas, Virginia.

An empty Latino restaurant in Manassas / Un restaurant latino vacío en Manassas

Monge said the crackdown had seriously impacted business. “People sold their homes, their kids dropped out of school -she said-, because (the police) could have taken them if they stayed.”

I wanted to talk to people with Help Save Manassas, the local group that had pushed strongly for the county resolution on immigration, but none of their officials responded to my emails while I was there. If they do during the trip, I’ll be sure to include their comments here. Still, HSM’s opinions are clear as water on their website and their newsletter, The Front Line. (Click here to open in pdf.)

“The unlawful presence of illegal aliens in our communities causes a significant number of problems,” the HSM website says. It adds undocumented immigrants are twenty percent of the local jail population, “distort the lower end of the labor market in ways that harm tradesmen and service employees, engage in rampant identity theft, and all too often contribute to residential overcrowding, increased demand on public services, and an overburdened healthcare system.”

Regarding the resolution, HSM says it has helped decrease crime (a causal relationship that is disputed) and reports that over 700 people have been turned over to ICE. It also lists other benefits resulting from the crackdown.

I still wanted to hear someone who was actively supporting the toughening of immigration enforcement. The HSM site lists businesses which “do the right thing“, i.e. don’t hire workers without proper documentation. So we drove up to the first one on the list, Andrews Auto Body in the city of Manassas Park.

Ray Andrews, Andrews Body Shop, City of Manassas Park, Virginia

Ray Andrews: outside his body shop / en su taller de chapa y pintura.

To my surprise (and his), Ray Andrews, 43, did not know what I was talking about when I introduced myself and mentioned the “Do the Right Thing” list. He faintly remembered meeting someone who may have been from HSM at a Fourth of July celebration and giving them his business card.

“I don’t remember signing up,” Andrews told me.

“I agree with some of that stuff,” he added in reference to HSM’s positions and made clear he doesn’t hire anyone without a work permit. “But I’m not against Spanish people or people of Mexican descent coming here. I’m against any illegal immigrant -no matter where they come from, it can be Mexico or it can be England- coming over here and getting all these (public) programs.”

Andrews is an Ohio-born Native American; he belongs to the Sault Ste. Marie tribe of Chippewa Indians. He told me a couple of stories that made me think of the point made by Gaudencio Fernández in his wall about many immigrants being Native Americans too.

The body shop owner said he’s mistaken for Hispanic quite often. “I get asked that all the time,” he said. “Do I speak Spanish… If I’m legal…”

His wife Vicky -they have four boys and four girls- then chipped in to tell us about the time Ray lost his driver’s license and had to get a new one. “He had to bring four different ID’s to prove (he was an American citizen,)” she said.

“They asked me for my green card,” Andrews added. Local police had pulled him over a couple of times, too, for no apparent reason.

Despite the big local controversy, Andrews said immigration was not a concern of his when thinking about his vote on the November election. There are bigger problems, he said: the war, the economy, gas prices in particular.

Quite a different view from Teresita Jacinto’s, as you can see on this video:

“There’s a lot of immigrants who are registered,” Jacinto added, “and youngsters who have not registered yet. We want to keep them interested so they go out and vote. But right now there’s not a lot of faith on the democratic system.”

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« Manassas: ¿pueblo fantasma o el Paraíso?
» La Ruta del Voto Latino: Crackdown on Immigrants / Leyes contra Inmigrantes