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Border Activists Draw Line in Suburbs

Times Staff Writer

The cluster of middle-aged men and women dressed in jeans and sweat shirts, with cameras and video recorders at the ready, peered across the street. Tourists are common in the Washington area, but these people weren’t looking for monuments.

The group, a newly formed chapter of the Minuteman Project, had its cameras trained on about 100 men gathered at an informal day-labor site in this northern Virginia town. When a truck or car pulled up, they snapped shots in earnest. The activists were there to photograph prospective employers, note license plate numbers and business names, and report them to the authorities, though it was unclear whether any official action would follow.

The Minuteman Project, controversial for its border patrols, is trying something new: looking to fight illegal immigration in the nation’s interior by targeting employers. The group is organizing in communities including Atlanta, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Indianapolis and Charlotte, N.C., monitoring and reporting businesses that hire suspected undocumented workers.

The self-appointed border security group is finding willing recruits. Since the Arizona-based Minuteman Project began in April, more than 20 chapters have sprung up across the country, said Chris Simcox, the group’s national president. He said the organization had “well over 100 requests” from people interested in starting their own chapters.

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“We’re struggling to keep up with the demand,” Simcox said. “It’s our aim, by next November, the ’06 elections, to have Minuteman interior chapters in every congressional district in the country.”

The group has been denounced for its border activities, its members dismissed as vigilantes and spoken of disapprovingly by President Bush.

They are no less controversial in Herndon, where Mayor Michael O’Reilly has called the national organization “a group that’s almost hate-based” and has criticized the local chapter’s tactic of monitoring employers as “an attempt to intimidate.”

The animosity was apparent one recent day, when camera-carrying Minuteman volunteers at a Herndon day-labor site were surprised by a fast-moving Pontiac Grand Am. The car screeched to the curb and a woman jumped out.

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“What you’re doing is persecution,” she shouted. “These people are just poor!”

The woman began hurling crumpled newspaper pages, bead necklaces, anything she could find in the car at the Minuteman activists, who silently turned their cameras her way. “You’re against immigrants,” she yelled, gunning the engine and pulling away.

The Herndon Minuteman chapter has been growing, driven in part by the Town Council’s decision to create a taxpayer-funded site for day laborers, where a community group will help workers connect with employers. The chapter has drawn teachers, retired military men and a police trainee -- 120 members since George Taplin, a software engineer, founded it in late October.

Taplin said two or three people called a day to ask about signing up. He said 65% of members were male, and most of them were white, but some were Asian, South Asian and Latino.

Many members, such as Diane Bonieskie, are longtime residents.

The retired social studies teacher said she got involved because houses in her neighborhood had become packed immigrant dormitories. She suspects that most tenants in the rooming houses, including the one next door, are illegal. She deals with roosters crowing and men urinating in the yard, loud parties and empty beer cans dumped outside. She fears it’s driving down the value of her house.

“I’m angry,” said the 60-year-old widow. She said the fight against illegal immigration was deeply personal and broadly political.

“George Bush is in it for the Hispanic vote, and we’re on the receiving end,” she said. “That’s not fair. Before, everybody looked out for everybody else; no one locked doors,” she said of her neighborhood. “Now we all have security systems.”

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Jeff Talley, 45, an airplane maintenance worker who lives across the street from Bonieskie, also joined the Minuteman chapter. “When you start messing with the value of people’s houses, people get really upset,” he said.

As Talley sees it, illegal immigrants take jobs from Americans -- whom it would cost companies more to employ -- and that will have long-term effects on American society.

“There’s a disappearing middle class,” said Talley, a Republican. “George Bush is a huge disappointment to this country. The Republican Party used to be for ordinary people, but no more.”

Herndon was once a farming town of wooden homes and towering maple trees. In the early 1960s, there were fewer than 2,000 residents; aerial photos show a small town center dotted with low-slung buildings and surrounded by a patchwork blanket of fields.

In the 1980s, Herndon’s proximity to Washington Dulles International Airport drew high-tech corporations, and today it is one of America’s fastest-growing, best-educated and most affluent suburbs. Its main thoroughfare is lined with strip malls, and hundreds of new subdivisions eat into what remains of the fields.

The boom brought immigrants, many illegal. There are about 375,000 illegal immigrants in the greater Washington area, almost half of whom arrived in the last five years, the Pew Hispanic Center said. About 50,000 illegal immigrants have moved to northern Virginia since 2000, Pew estimates.

A quarter of Herndon’s 23,000 residents are Latino, largely from Central America. An additional 26% belong to other minority groups. They are building houses, working in new stores and injecting their own ways of life into the culture.

Some residents are uncomfortable with laborers gathering on street corners, waiting for work. People worry about what the influx of immigrants will mean for property values and the added burdens on schools, hospitals and law enforcement.

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And some find it unsettling to watch the town change.

William Campenni, an engineering consultant and retired military man on patrol one crisp November day, said there were seven dormitory houses in his upscale neighborhood.

The rooming houses are common in the eastern United States. Typically, single-family homes are converted without the neighbors’ knowledge. But it soon becomes apparent that 20 to 30 immigrants, usually men, live in one house, sometimes sleeping in shifts.

“Once the house owners clear their mortgage, every tenant represents money in the bank,” Campenni said.

The son and husband of immigrants, Campenni thinks the United States needs immigration. But it must be legal, and immigrants must want to become citizens, he said.

He doesn’t see that in Herndon. “They don’t want to fit in,” he said.

But other residents do not see the day-labor center as a problem or a threat.

“I understand the concern [Minuteman activists] have,” said Tim Ogden, a 44-year-old youth counselor, “but this gives people an opportunity to improve their lives.”

Ogden said his housekeeper came from El Salvador, initially illegally, to provide for her family. Now she is a citizen.

“If the center had existed, it would have been easier for her,” Ogden said. “Right now, it’s organized chaos. We have the resources to provide opportunities.”

Taplin, the founder of the Herndon chapter, is among residents suing the town for using tax dollars to create the labor site. He and the others know that most of the Town Council backs the center, as does the mayor. They know that Virginia voters recently handed a victory to the gubernatorial candidate with a more pro-immigration policy. And they know their actions are like a red flag to some people.

Bonieskie listed the slurs aimed at her and other Minuteman volunteers, ticking them off on her fingers: “Nazi, bigot, racist, vigilante, that we would favor lynching and probably would have supported the Holocaust. The hate speech is coming from the other side, but they’re just trying to control us by controlling the dialogue.”

Still, the activists say the momentum is on their side.

“This is one of those rare issues, like the civil rights movement, where a few people get the ball rolling and get way ahead of the politicians,” Campenni said.

The group also takes heart from the effect it says it is having. In under a month, members said, they have compiled a list of more than 120 businesses that are hiring illegal immigrants; they plan to send their reports to the Internal Revenue Service, among other authorities.

It is information the IRS might use. An agency spokesman said tax returns could be examined -- based on information received from informants -- for potential noncompliance with tax laws or inaccurate filing.

At Herndon’s informal day-labor site, the numbers of employers coming by has dropped by 75% since the Minuteman teams started patrolling, Taplin says, and the number of workers has been cut in half.

But tensions are rising.

As the Minutemen recently photographed cars pulling up to the labor site, a man charged out of his van to ask why the group had taken his photo.

“Are you hiring here?” Campenni asked.

“I wanted to, but I didn’t,” the man said. “I want your names so I can call the police.”

He left without their names -- or any workers.

The prospective employer was not the first or last to voice his displeasure, but Taplin shrugged it off.

Some critics accuse the Minuteman Project of “missing the humanity of the workers’ situation,” he said. “But just because you’re poor and Hispanic, that isn’t good enough reason to break the law.”


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