American-born demonstrators wash immigrants' feet

Father Jaime Molina reminded the crowd that the Bible was full of people who had wandered far from their homelands: Abraham, Sara, Moses. He told them not to step on anyone's grass, and to pick up their litter.

Activist Anton Flores-Maisonet told the demonstrators — about 450 Latino immigrants, their children and their supporters — that most Georgians really didn't support the Arizona-style immigration bill the Legislature approved last week.

He was most likely wrong: In a poll taken in July, 68% supported such a bill. But no matter. Flores-Maisonet argued that the people on the other side of this debate were likely afraid. And that this group could combat that fear by demonstrating "a perfect love."

And with that, they filed out of St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church on Thursday morning to march quietly past the ranch houses and quickie marts and strip malls of suburban Georgia, toward the old town square in Marietta, about eight miles off. There, in imitation of Jesus, who washed his apostles' feet the day before his execution, the American-born among them would wash the feet of a dozen immigrants.

The Maundy Thursday Christian tradition was intended to be an act of humility and solidarity. To some, it was also an act of provocation in Cobb County, a conservative Atlanta suburb where the Latino population grew nearly 80% in the last decade.

"Using Easter and invoking the name of God to advance the open-borders agenda is not only an insult to most thinking Christians, but creepy and transparent," wrote D.A. King, head of the Cobb County-based Dustin Inman Society, which opposes illegal immigration, in an email. "I have seen one of these marches, complete with cross-carrying professional victims and self-comparisons to Christ. It is quite nauseating."

This was the third year that Catholic activists have organized Holy Week marches around Georgia, but this year participants said they took on a particular poignancy, given the worries over the legislation, which, among other things, would empower police to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. Republican Gov. Nathan Deal has said he will probably sign it.

For now, however, there was perhaps no better demonstration of the strange, suspended state of things in Georgia than the local police, in buzz cuts and drill-sergeant-style hats, blocking traffic on South Cobb Drive to allow the long train of protesters to pass.

St. Thomas' Father Jim Kuczynski said the marchers had to secure permits from three municipalities and pay for the police escort. The officers, this morning the hired help, are usually a source of paranoia.

"That's the way these people usually live — in fear," Kuczynski said. "Fear of coming to church."

The marchers walked on, the mothers pushing kids in cheap strollers, the men in ball caps, the teens in skinny jeans — rare pedestrians on the suburban carscape.

They passed a carwash and its African American manager, Jabari Winfrey, 32. He said he'd like to see a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants. "They're my brothers and sisters. I love them all." The Constitution, he noted, didn't treat his ancestors as citizens.

They walked past Adventure Outdoors, where Zane Robicheaux, a Louisianan with a concealed weapons permit, shops for pistols. "I'm for sending 'em back," he said. "I just don't think our country is in a state where we can take on these people."

Rosa Murcia, 14, walked with a group of her freshman friends. They all had a story. Murcia's brother-in-law, she said, was about to get deported. Her uncle was already deported to El Salvador.

"Did you see that?" she said. "That guy just drove by and called us … beaners."

They passed a weedy graveyard.

"Honestly, I'd love to get out of Georgia because of all the racism," she said.

Where to? "Anywhere where there's no racism — or if there is, where at least they're not trying to get rid of us."

About five hours after they started, they filed into the park in the middle of Marietta's Victorian town square, built up from the ashes of Sherman's march.

A dozen immigrants sat on folding chairs. A dozen American-born people removed the shoes and socks of the immigrants. The immigrants looked slightly embarrassed. Three were wearing monitoring anklets, a sign that they were enmeshed in the deportation process.

The American-born poured bottled drinking water on their feet and dried them with white towels. Father Jim and Father Jaime led them in a prayer.

It was awkward, and poignant, and almost no one else seemed to be paying attention. The people of Marietta wandered in and out of the coffee and antique shops and cars whooshed past, windows rolled up against the Georgia sun.

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