by Will Marshall
Saturday, May 22, 2010
It’s a cool Saturday morning in May. I’m standing in the parking lot of CASA de Maryland located on University Boulevard and Piney Branch Road. CASA de Maryland is a county funded institution that works with low-income immigrant communities, particularly Latinos, to assure access to a full range of resources and opportunities.
A group named Help Save Maryland, “a multi-ethnic, grassroots, citizens’ organization dedicated to preserving Maryland’s counties, cities and towns from the negative effects of illegal aliens” is planning an anti CASA/illegal immigration rally here today.
Nobody is sure what to expect.
In the past Help Save Maryland’s rallies have been relatively small; a smattering of protesters carrying signs along the sidewalk that runs parallel to University Boulevard.
Today is different. The controversial immigration law recently passed in Arizona giving law enforcement the power to incarcerate and deport any one who does not produce proper identification upon request has sparked debate nationwide.
Advocates of the law say it enforces Federal law. Dissenters claim it will cause racial profiling.
People are choosing sides.
Brad Botwin, Help Save Maryland’s founder, wants to see Maryland incorporate the Arizona law.
“We are very much backing the people in Arizona because the illegals don’t stay in Arizona, they come to places like Montgomery County because we offer them jobs, schooling, and medical care,” said Botwin. “They come here like a moth to a flame.”
In the parking lot a small group of volunteers wearing red CASA shirts is gathering in a circle to introduce one another before the rally starts. “My name’s Tom,” a white man with khaki cargo shorts, says, “I just want to help anyway I can.” Everyone introduces themselves. One woman is from Africa, another from France.
CASA’s strategy today is one of passive resistance. Instead of shouting back at the protesters they are going to plant some flowers and clean up the grounds. “We believe in doing good things for the community, and that’s what we will be doing today,” says Tania del Angel, CASA’s Media Correspondent.
Suddenly, a large white man with long gray hair, wearing an American flag T-shirt, strides up along the black wrought iron fence that borders the parking lot. “You are trespassing on American soil, go home,” he barks at the CASA volunteers through the megaphone.
The rally has begun.
Arizona’s immigration law is not the only narrative driving the anger behind this rally. Montgomery County is one of the nation’s most affluent counties and has for years opened its substantial coffers to those in need. Now after four decades of continuous growth, Montgomery County faces a budget shortfall of nearly one billion dollars.
“Look, the truth is most of the people who come over illegally are not criminals, they are just people like you and me looking for a good thing. I don’t blame them. But we can’t allow people to take advantage of our services or we will go broke. That is really what it is all about.” Botwin says.
Bruce Botwin (on the left), founder of Help Save Maryland
A black truck attempts to pull into the parking lot. But a protestor, a heavy set man, with glasses and a gray beard and carrying two American Flags, won’t get out of its way. “Move please,” yells Kim Propeak, CASA’s Director of Community Organizer. “Hey, don’t touch me, it’s a free country,” the man shouts back. A police officer ushers the flag-waving man out of the path of truck.
The folks at CASA understand the anger people feel about immigration, but what they don’t understand is why this anger is standing on there doorstep
shouting things like, “Speak English or go home.”
“I understand why they are so angry. The federal system is broken. But they shouldn’t focus their energy on us, we are trying to help people integrate into our community. We just provide services. They should focus on the Federal government,” says Angel.
Sissy Kegley, a resident of Takoma Park, who is wearing a Red CASA shirt doesn’t like what she is hearing either, “I hear a lot of misinformation. There is no face to what they are arguing. Look around, not everyone speaks Spanish here. What they don’t understand is that by cutting funding they are cutting English classes. They just don’t understand the big picture.”
A crowd of seventy or eighty people has formed on the sidewalk. Some are waving large American flags, others are waving the yellow “Don’t tread on me” Gadsden flags. The man with long gray hair and the megaphone is now standing on a Mexican flag. “Calderon hates America,” he shouts.
“He shouldn’t do that,” says Joey Perez, a protester and member of the Cecil County Patriots. “That’s disrespectful, we don’t believe in disrespecting people. We just feel the federal (immigration) law needs to be enforced. We won’t stand on anyone’s flag but we do feel this country has a problem.”
Inside CASA’s gates small children are planting flowers in fresh mulch. A group of Hispanic adolescent boys stands crossed armed watching the rally in silence.
Evelyn Gonzalez, a CASA volunteer doesn’t like the tone of the rhetoric brewing on the sidewalk, “Look, together we form a society, a family. We need to come together and form solutions. How you act in a crisis says a lot about your family.”
The man with the megaphone is no longer standing on the Mexican flag. Members of the Cecil County Patriots have told him they thought it was disrespectful and he complied.
Volunteers at CASA beautify their community center while their critics picket.
A car drives by and honks. The passenger pumps his fist in support. All of the protestors wave and clap, and shout their approval. Moments later, another car drives by and this time the passenger flips them off and yells something that sounds like “Nazi.”
Brad Botwin doesn’t like when people call him or the people of Help Save Maryland Nazi’s. He thinks the comparison is absurd. “When people call me a Nazi, it’s just sad. It makes me sad. I’m Jewish. Some of my ancestors where murdered in the Holocaust. I’m not frothing at the mouth with hate. I just want our tax dollars to stop funding people who are here illegally.”
The rally is winding down; signs and flags no longer hoisted high in the air. Most of protestors are in groups of five or six, talking amongst themselves, sharing war stories.
Tona Craviote, CASA’s Work Force Manager, can’t believe the turnout, “I’m surprised there were so many. I don’t like what they say. To me they are against fathers and mothers working. They are against families. But I say thank you Arizona, because it’s causing people to care or not care. It making people choose sides and we need that as a country.”
Detail from mural at CASA de Maryland community center.