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Border Activists Draw Line in Suburbs

The Minuteman Project extends its reach to a Virginia town to fight illegal immigration.

November 28, 2005|Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writer

HERNDON, Va. — 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.

"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.

"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."

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.

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