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The Nation

Hostility to Illegal Arrivals Is 15 Feet Tall Along U.S. Roads

July 10, 2006|Richard Fausset | Times Staff Writer

ATLANTA — It is difficult for maid Lilian Trachoz to avoid seeing the huge billboard that looms a few hundred feet away from her hotel workplace -- the one that says "STOP the INVASION" and, in smaller letters, "Secure Our Borders."

Trachoz is a legal immigrant from Puebla, Mexico, and she doesn't much care for the tone of the sign -- it is feo, she says, ugly. But she also thinks the word "invasion" is a pretty accurate description of what has happened in Atlanta, and the nation, in the last few years.

"It's true that there are a lot of Hispanics here," she said in Spanish, after swabbing a third-floor bathroom.

Trachoz might find the billboard both offensive and accurate, but more common are Atlantans who find it one or the other. That kind of polarizing response is closer to the intended effect of the sign's sponsor, Grassfire.org, which has erected a dozen of the signs in American cities since May.

"Legal citizens see it and say, 'You're right,' " said Ron De Jong, a spokesman for the group. "Illegals see it, and some of them are enraged. And they should be, because they are here illegally."

Grassfire.org, a self-described "conservative, pro-family and pro-faith" group based in Iowa, put its first billboard up in Dallas as a response to the thousands of protesters who took to the streets to challenge proposals in Congress to revamp immigration laws. Positive response to the sign spurred the group to put up signs in other immigrant-heavy areas around Miami; Phoenix; and Los Angeles, where the message is aimed at westbound travelers on the 210 freeway near the 605 interchange.

On the Grassfire.org website, supporters can sponsor the billboards at $25 per "square foot." De Jong said the group was planning billboards in a number of other locales, including Chicago and Tucson.

He said his group also helped put up a billboard in Winnfield, La., after being approached by residents there who were concerned about immigration. Winnfield, a city of about 5,200, is home to about 65 Latinos, according to the demographic and marketing company Claritas.

"This is 100% completely grass-roots support," De Jong said. "We've gotten a good deal of reaction from folks who say, 'I want it in my neighborhood.' "

The signs' reference to an "invasion" is stirring debate not only about policy, but about the kind of language appropriate to the nation's conversation about changing immigration laws -- which touches on hot-button topics of race, culture, nationalism and household economics.

In a May speech to the nation, President Bush called on Americans to discuss the issue in a "reasoned and respectful" tone. In Atlanta, not everyone thinks the billboards meet those criteria.

The sign here was placed on the northeast side of town, near two of the city's most visible immigrant areas, Buford Highway and Cheshire Bridge Road. Both thoroughfares are home to Southern fixtures such as Waffle House and a riotous mix of the new reality -- including taquerias, African grocery stores and Asian restaurants. Directly below the billboard, an Asian-run business called the World Health Spa displays a "God Bless America!" sign on a door next to credit card stickers.

"I guess you could call it an invasion," said Juan Grijalva, 32, an illegal worker who was cutting the grass at a condominium complex a few blocks away. "But we're only here to work, and to make our lives better."

George Gholami, the Iranian-born owner of luxury foods store Happy Herman's, called the billboard "ludicrous."

"Invasion -- that's not true," said Gholami, a U.S. citizen. "They wouldn't be here if Americans didn't want them."

Jeff Stafford, 42, a white construction worker, said he thought the U.S. should shore up its border. He and a friend were hanging out by the Landmark Diner Jr., using the pay phone to try to line up a tile-laying job.

Stafford said illegal workers had driven down wages in the building trades. Still, he said, he found the sign "un-American."

Down the street at a gas station, house painter Torrance Favors said he agreed 100% with both the message and the language of the billboard. Favors is black, and a couple of his black friends nodded as he described the unfair competition immigrants pose in the working-class job market -- as well as the trouble he has understanding their broken English on work sites.

"I think they should send them back where they came from," he said.

Grassfire.org has included on some of its billboards the names of politicians who oppose enforcement-only immigration changes. The Los Angeles sign is identical to the one in Atlanta except that L.A.'s includes the local office number for Sen. Barbara Boxer. The California Democrat supports the Senate immigration bill, which would tighten border security but also create a path for most illegal immigrants in the U.S. to gain legal status.

Grassfire.org supports the enforcement-only House bill, which, among other measures, would make illegal presence in the U.S. a felony. The Senate plan, De Jong said, amounts to "amnesty" for illegal immigrants.

In states such as California, he said, the billboards are a way to remind politicians that many Americans are fed up with lax enforcement of the border and the law.

"Elected officials should be afraid," he said, "because they're going to be held accountable on election day."

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