By Chris Joseph
By Chris Joseph
By Terrence McCoy
By Dennis Bovell
By Terrence McCoy
By Chris Joseph
By Fire Ant
By Terrence McCoy
Let's get one thing straight: The protesters who gather outside the El Sol Day Labor Center in Jupiter every Saturday morning don't hate immigrants. They hate illegal immigration.
"America was built by immigrants," concedes a man who gives his name only as Bob. He is a former Marine, a self-described patriot, and a commercial diver. "We're opposed to illegals getting paid but then not contributing to Social Security, not paying taxes. They're taking benefits but not contributing to society. It's important to get that fact out."
That's the main gripe.
There are others, though.
It's a given that these protesters resent having to press "1" for English. "The Roman Empire fell [in part because] it wouldn't insist that people speak their language," Bob says.
Then there are the health issues. "Did you know that leprosy is making a comeback in this country?" asks John Barber, an unsmiling, mustached man in jean shorts.
If that doesn't get you aboard, how about this? "Thirteen Americans a day are killed by illegal immigrant drivers," Barber says.
Of course, it all plays out in the panorama of global politics. The government's "lax" stance toward illegal immigrants, one protester says, is part of a secret plan to combine the United States, Canada, and Mexico into one country.
Every weekend since December, 20 to 100 like-minded individuals have gathered with picket signs in the hot sun on the corner of Military Trail and Indiantown Road. Just behind the protesters stands the source of their discontent: a sizable two-story white building on town property. This is El Sol. Every morning around 6:30, scores of young to middle-aged men, mostly of Hispanic descent, begin the trek over here in hopes of being chosen for a day labor assignment — usually light construction or landscaping. It's a veritable invasion. An army of short, dark people on bicycles.
The protesters allege that most of the day laborers are illegal immigrants. They argue that by leasing the building to El Sol for just $1 a year, the Town of Jupiter is violating state and federal laws. Florida Statutes — specifically Title XXXI, Chapter 448.09 — states that "it shall be unlawful for any person knowingly to employ, hire, recruit, or refer ... an alien who is not duly authorized to work" in the United States. U.S. Code — Title 8, Chapter 12, Subchapter II, Part VIII — says it's against the law "to hire, or to recruit, or refer for a fee... an alien knowing the alien is an unauthorized alien."
It's plain as day. Liberals can yap all they want about human rights or cultural sensitivity but, as one of the protesters' signs says, "Illegal Means Illegal."
The city's position is that it is doing nothing more than leasing space to a nonprofit organization. Staff at the nonprofit say they are performing a community service by providing a safe, centralized locale for matching workers with jobs. They don't even check workers' immigration status. The federal government, for the most part, stays out of it, and local police simply keep the peace.
To the protesters, it's as though all the authorities are sticking their fingers in their ears, saying, "Na Na Na Na I can't hear you!"
Not sure who to complain to anymore, the protesters take to the street corner, where they are bombarded with supportive honks and angry shouts. Tensions run high enough that four police officers keep watch nearby.
In the national discourse, immigration reform has become a political buzz point, especially during this presidential election season. Republican candidate Tom Tancredo made the matter central to his run for office, and television commentators like Lou Dobbs keep the issue in play by ranting about the deleterious effects of illegals on American life. In Jupiter, away from rehearsed campaign speeches or insulated sound stages, the drama plays out in real time, at street level.
Two of the protest's organizers — 78-year-old Charlie Elliott and 64-year-old John Parsons — recall how they met on a senior softball team and decided to organize rather than simply kvetch. They spread the word about protests through conservative radio talk shows and the nonprofit group Floridians for Immigration Enforcement (FLIMEN). Parsons ran for Town Council touting his anti-illegal-immigration stance but lost the election in March.
A curly haired man of about 30 drives up in a maroon Jeep Cherokee. He rolls down his window. "I think it's disgusting what you guys are doing out here," he tells the group of protesters, itching for an argument. His name is Eric, he says, and he hires day laborers regularly.
Elliott, clad in Bermuda shorts and white socks that cover his calves, marches over to the vehicle. He tugs his baseball cap and wipes his brow. This type of person confounds him. "Don't you care that laws are being broken?" he asks.
"If Americans would actually show up on time and don't steal —" Eric begins, leaning out the window of the Jeep.
Elliott groans in frustration. "An American could make $20 an hour," he cries, "except the illegals come in and you pay him ten!"
"If Americans want their jobs back," the contractor says, "they need to be more reliable, more efficient, trained better —"
"You're hiring the wrong person!" Parsons pipes in.
"These are the most productive workers in the country!"
"They've probably got the worst employer!" Elliott spits back.
"You want to pay $25, $30 to get your car washed? $250 to get your lawn done, when now you're getting it for $90?"
"Yeah! If you'd pay the proper benefits!" Elliott argues.
"Everyone here protesting is enjoying the benefits of them being in the country," the contractor argues back, his voice rising. "It's not right! You should not be intimidating them. They can't even ride down the street without being harassed. Get on the Americans for being lazy and worthless."
Those words are blasphemous. The crowd of protesters gathers around the truck. Three or four of them run to the back of it to jot down the license plate so they can report Eric — to somebody! — for hiring illegals.
"He has no license plate!" one of them cries.
"I knew you'd try something like that!" the contractor taunts, waving the plate from inside the cab but showing only its back side.
Charlie Elliott runs over to the policemen, pointing furiously.
Eric jumps out of his truck, its engine running, to show the cops that he indeed has a plate. Shaking his head, he jumps back in his vehicle and speeds off.
"He's getting rich off the illegals," Elliott mumbles breathlessly.
"Yeah," scoffs Parsons, pushing his glasses up on his nose as he eyeballs the truck peeling out of the parking lot. "The illegals bought him that SUV."
The inside of El Sol looks like a school cafeteria. Men — and four or five women — sit at tables and chat. Or they read newspapers. Some form a snaking line at a food window, where they are served free hot meals and coffee in Starbucks cups. Another line forms for a computer lab, where workers check email or take online English tutorials. Above the computers are signs in Spanish: "Don't use the computers for betting or pornography."
Occasionally, a number is called over a loudspeaker and a worker is selected through a raffle system to go off for work. By 2 p.m., though, most of the men are still sitting around. Chairs go up. Mops come out. An institutional smell, like Pine Sol, wafts through the air.
Before this center opened in 2006, workers would loiter on the side of the road, mostly on Center Street, in hopes they'd get picked up to do some yard work or construction. If a truck pulled over, 20 men might run up to it and jockey for the job. Scuffles occasionally broke out.
It was an untidy sight in this palmy bedroom community, where the median family income, according to Money magazine, is $74,756 a year, the big tourist attraction is a historical lighthouse, and many celebrities — like singer Celine Dion and race-car champ Jeff Gordon — have lived quietly. So the town opted to lease space in its municipal complex to Catholic Charities for $1 a year so the charity organization could open El Sol. Recently, the Catholics turned over management of the center to an independent nonprofit entity created to run it. It is funded entirely by private donations and has only three workers on staff.
Director Mike Richmond, a retired journalist, does not speak Spanish and says he doesn't know details about the laws that regulate immigrant workers. The arcane technicalities are irrelevant to the day-to-day task of running an outpost like El Sol, Richmond says. You want legal information? "You'd have to ask an immigration expert," he says.
In fact, state and federal laws make it criminal for an employer to hire illegal workers , but he'd have to have "actual knowledge" that the individuals are aliens or do it "knowingly." The state statute similarly applies only to employers who "knowingly" hire illegal workers. (The state statute is said by people on both sides of the protest to be largely unenforceable, because federal law preempts it. But it remains on the books.)
Hence, El Sol's don't-ask policy. To register at the center, a day laborer needs only to show proof that he or she lives in Jupiter (most live in neighborhoods on the east side of town). The service is open to anyone who meets that requirement, regardless of their race or heritage, so anyone — black, white, Haitian, male or female, citizen or noncitizen — is welcome. Still, most workers hail from Guatemala.
The center also offers language classes, job skills, legal assistance, and even a psychologist's help. It is headquarters for a marimba band and two soccer teams. Richmond eagerly displays a report showing the value of services it provides estimated at $64,789 per month.
Labor coordinator Dora Valdivia, who immigrated legally from Peru, speaks passionately. "We took a problem and turned it into a good thing," she says. "We are doing the best we can do. That's not to say we have fixed everything — that's not our responsibility. We are a resource center for the neighborhood, for everybody. That's the spirit of the center."
On an average day, Valdivia estimates, about 15 to 20 percent of the workers who show up get hired. That's about 30 out of 150 applicants. In its year and a half of operation, the center has registered about 860 workers and 1,600 employers.
Jeronimo Camposeco is vice president of El Sol and leader of a nonprofit Guatemalan support group called Corn Maya. He came to America in 1980, fleeing Guatemala's 36-year civil war. In 1982, the Catholic Church asked him to move from Pennsylvania to Indiantown to assist the immigrant population. Many of the immigrants come from isolated regions in the mountains of Guatemala, where they are considered indigenous. Their main language is not Spanish but either Kanjobal or one of 22 other dialects used by Guatemala's Indians. Camposeco was one of a handful of American residents in a position to understand them. He has been a U.S. citizen since 1999.
Camposeco is a big man with thick, black-rimmed glasses whose deep but quiet voice conveys a sense of gravitas, like a gentle giant. "Even after the war ended," he explains, "the situation in Guatemala continued. There are guerrilla fights. The paramilitary is still there, even with a peace treaty." Decades of corruption have kept the country in poverty, he says.
"We are called the corn people," Camposeco says. "It's the basis of our diet . Now, there is not enough land to feed our own people. Yes, they work in sugar cane, bananas, coffee. It's harvested by Indians, but it's not their bananas." Most farmland, he says, is controlled by large multinational corporations.
Anti-immigration groups pressure American politicians, Camposeco says, "which makes it hard for us [Guatemalans] to get any kind of legal status. Except a tourist visa — and those are only available to the very rich. As soon as they see us at the embassy, they say, 'No way.' "
It's not as though immigrants wouldn't prefer to live in the lush valleys of their home countries, Camposeco says. "Most people are feeling very bad that they have to be here. They are human beings who want to live decently and work decently." He sighs sadly. "Everybody loves animals. I guess not everybody loves humans."
Edmundo Rodriguez, 27, is vice president of the workers' group at El Sol. He has been in Jupiter for two years and three months now. It cost him $5,000 to get here from Guatemala, he says. Although it would be almost impossible to verify his story, similar tales of "coyotes" smuggling humans across the border have been so thoroughly reported that they seem almost cliché. According to Rodriguez, the practice continues, with as much grasping profiteering as ever.
Rodriguez, a happy-looking fellow who wears broken-in jeans and a T-shirt from Zion National Park, describes how he came to Jupiter in 2006: a saga involving several trucks, one boat, two near-captures, and a network of safehouses.
He began by paying a coyote $2,000 up-front. He was packed into a semi truck, with nonperishables in the main container as decoys and a secret compartment underneath where he lay with dozens of people, packed in like slaves during the Middle Passage. Along the way, they would stop at safehouses, where they would sometimes wait days. Coyotes communicated through a phone and radio network, warning one another when police were around, urging one another forward when they weren't.
One day, Rodriguez and his companions were ushered by boat. Another, they had to jump off a moving train. At one point, the group was divvied up into smaller trucks. During a 24-hour leg of the trip, they were given only two apples to eat — "and not the nice ones from Publix." In Mexico, Rodriguez's truck was stopped by a guard. Each of the eight immigrants had to pony up 2,000 pesos (about $200) in bribes.
With just his backpack, one change of clothes, and a gallon of water, Rodriguez says, he marched through the desert for five days and nights, seeing little more than sand and tumbleweed. "It's not like Tijuana," he says. No bridge. No big welcome sign. No donkeys painted like zebras. Guards crisscross the vast border area in SUVs.
At what Rodriguez suspects is the technical border, he says, is a fence — the kind used to corral cows, with posts and two lines of barbed wire.
"All you can see is lights" in the distance, he recalls.
Once the group made it to a hotel room in Arizona, Rodriguez paid the coyote the outstanding $3,000. The immigrants organized by destination — some were going to Florida, others to New Jersey. They waited for more Jupiter-bound arrivals and then set off for the Sunshine State in one nonstop drive.
When he first landed in Jupiter, Rodriguez lived with seven other people. Then he helped his aunt come over, and now he lives with her and another woman in an apartment where they get a good deal on rent. Police give him no trouble, and "the neighbors don't even talk to us," he says, except maybe to wave hello. He attributes the lack of communication to the language barrier.
Will he stay? "If I can find a wife," he laughs. That can be a problem: not too many eligible women around. But leisure isn't high on his list of priorities. "The United States is a good country. It's beautiful," Rodriguez says. But most of all, "It opens doors." His future children would be able to go to school. "Here, an 8-year-old knows computers better than me.
"I feel fortunate," Rodriguez says. "I came to look for opportunities my country doesn't have. There, there are not so many resources." Although he's the son of farm workers, Rodriguez says he'd been a teacher in Guatemala, where he made less than $200 a month.
Now, if hired regularly for day jobs, he can make up to ten times that. But he has launched other ventures just in case his number doesn't come up often enough in the raffle. In his spare time, he teaches his peers how to read and write. He has also started a little business where people can buy things from a catalog. It's a pyramid scheme, kind of like Amway, in which he's rewarded by getting more people to join.
He doesn't let the protesters bother him too much, he says. "This is the country of opportunity. I am fighting for my future."
With that, he hands out his business card.
Charlie Elliott is disturbed by what he sees in the neighborhood of Pine Gardens South. He says he's aware of 18 robberies this year that were never reported in the paper. His immigrant neighbors host drug parties — he knows they are drug parties because he sees 15 to 20 cars come and go in an hour. His neighbor is a coyote who runs an illegal daycare. And immigrants are getting free prescriptions from the county, then turning around to sell them for profit, he alleges.
There are Hispanic gangs in the streets, Elliott says. Houses with seven cars in the driveway violate code, he says, as do apartments that can be rented by the bed. Go to the hospital, he says, and there's a four-hour wait because of sick immigrants crowding the place.
He is particularly offended that one girl arrived in town on a Thursday and had a job at Burger King on Friday.
Elliott believes that charities that supply immigrants with free food are being duped. Multiple charities service the exact same house, he says, causing overflow and waste. "They're throwing food away! Ask our garbageman!" He suggests doing a ride-along on a garbage route to find evidence.
Sgt. Scott Pascarella of the Jupiter Police Department, asked about this barrage of allegations, says there is no increase in robberies and "no influx of drug activity among the Hispanic community." He says he doesn't have any knowledge of immigrant gangs, and if there's an illegal coyote-run daycare, Elliott is welcome to report it.
A ride-along with Elliott through the neighborhood does reveal sights that might be normal and even comforting in Guatemala but are new to Pine Gardens South: groups of Hispanic men in cowboy hats, women carrying babies in slings, a man napping on a front lawn at 1 p.m., grown men riding bicycles.
For speaking out about his concerns, Elliott says, he has been rewarded with a broken window on his truck. Another day, he came out to find a dent in his hood.
"Twenty years ago, this was all blue-collar families and dirt roads," Perry says. He began noticing the influx of foreigners around 2005. "You can tell by the bicycles, these guys don't have licenses. At night, it's worse — they go around with no reflectors."
"They rock 'n' roll pretty good too," Perry adds. He hears music, traffic, and breaking beer bottles at 2 and 3 a.m. He has lodged at least 15 complaints, he says. "They won't stop drinking. They party till dawn." (Sgt. Pascarella says the town recently passed an ordinance to help curb noise disturbances and open consumption of alcohol.)
Perry reports that he once saw a drunken guy go flying over his handlebars. Another time, there was a stabbing. "They parade down the street with the Mexican flag."
Perry has even witnessed a man selling ice cream from a three-wheeled bicycle. "That should be illegal, shouldn't it?"
Pascarella laughs at this suggestion, saying that he has never encountered such a rogue ice cream salesman. "If I do confront one, I'll give you a call!"
Once, when he heard cops investigating a home invasion, Perry says, "I had my gun out."
Perry points across the street. "You know Corn Maya?" he asks ominously. "That's the head guy's house."
Isn't Corn Maya, like, a charity? Perry chuckles, as though the suggestion is naive. "That's a front."
What about the old saying, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em?" How about heading over to meet the neighbors with a six-pack of Corona? Perry scoffs. He'd rather beat 'em.
Elliott's across-the-street neighbor, Diane Mondun, 59, has lived in the neighborhood since 1973. She says the man next door is a slumlord who crams in too many tenants. The house, she says, has rats and plumbing problems. Another neighbor — an immigrant — is always working on cars. Oil could contaminate the ground.
Mondun says Jupiter is such a magnet for immigrants that strange men have showed up on her doorstep asking, "Friend? You speaka English?" When she looks puzzled, they go to the next house. She says that, since people need proof of residence to register at El Sol, they have stolen her water bill to get her address. (Pascarella says he has never heard of a stolen-water-bill racket.) In spite of the center, contractors pick up workers in the neighborhood, honking at 6:30 a.m.
"To be honest, the families are fine," Mondun says. "It's the young single guys I'm worried about — drinking, fighting, doing whatever they want to do." Mondun fears potential sexual assaults. "Three girls live down the street. You see the guys check them out." She has encountered drunken men in the alley. "One of them asked me if I wanted a cigarette and a beer." She decidedly did not appreciate the gesture.
"We don't want them out; we just want everybody to abide by the laws," she says, frustrated. "People say it's cultural. Don't we have laws here?
"Jupiter was never like this," she laments. "It started out as a nice, quiet, peaceful place." Well, a nice quiet place for "rednecks," she adds. Those guys all moved to Jupiter Farms, though. "But you felt safe around them."
She sighs. "Some people have guns. I don't want to see guys shot."
Jupiter's town spokesperson Kate Moretto says that the whole conflict began when "there was slowing traffic because of the hiring practices going on. It was a large quality-of-life issue." The town passed an anti-solicitation ordinance that prevents people from soliciting jobs on the street. It effectively drives the day labor hiring process to El Sol.
"As you imagine, we can't single people out" to check their background, Moretto says. But "it is our policy to I.D. anyone who is arrested for a felony who they believe may not have documented status." The jails, she says, "have a procedure once that person is booked. Our police department doesn't necessarily get involved in that."
Charlie Elliott says policemen give him thumbs up but won't go on record against El Sol for fear of losing their jobs. El Sol Director Mike Richmond says the opposite: Just the other day, he had a retired cop stop in and write a check for $1,000.
Although it's not an official designation, the town is sometimes denigratingly called a "sanctuary city" — a place where illegal immigrants will not be rounded up by municipal officials. Local police have reached out to workers at El Sol by lecturing on topics like bicycle safety and how to avoid being victimized.
One former Jupiter policeman, John Banister, took illegal immigration enforcement into his own hands. "There is no official word on what to do with illegals," Banister says. During the years he was with the department — 2002 to 2007 — he might arrest suspects for theft or assault, but "we were told specifically we weren't allowed to pick them up just for being illegal." He suggests that the town was afraid of accusations of racial profiling or discrimination lawsuits. "So you would play in the gray."
Banister says that he found himself arresting the same guys five, seven, eight times. "Nine out of ten never had I.D. They gave us the wrong name. It would not be uncommon for a guy to have ten aliases."
When he encountered a chronic troublemaker, he would go to a private phone and contact Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the federal agency responsible for enforcing immigration laws. He would fax his arrest reports or probable-cause affidavits. In many cases, he says, an ICE agent would show up to take custody of the offender and take him to Krome Detention Center in Miami for a deportation hearing. Eventually, Banister says, he was ordered to stop the practice. He later left the department over a separate internal dispute and is now suing it.
Sgt. Pascarella disputes Banister's tale about turning in illegals and being reprimanded. He adds that if ICE asked for assistance, Jupiter police would offer "whatever we need to do to be in full compliance."
Simply having crossed the border illegally won't usually get an immigrant in trouble. Workers here illegally are generally not prosecuted unless they commit additional crimes. Barbara Gonzalez, a spokesperson for the ICE bureau in Miami, says federal agents don't barge in on suspected illegal alien gathering places and round people up without concrete evidence of wrongdoing. "We conduct target investigations based on intelligence and investigative leads," she says.
In the first week of April, the agency conducted a tricounty sweep that netted 332 suspects — 81 of those in Palm Beach County. Of the 332, 300 had already had due process and been ordered deported or placed under supervision. But they then flaunted the law and tried to hide. The other 32 had been arrested for criminal violations.
Jill Hanson, an attorney who volunteers at El Sol (the center was named partly in honor of her late husband, Sol Silverman, a champion of workers' rights) says that ICE officers "were pounding on doors at 4:30 a.m." and that they didn't have warrants.
Hanson believes groups like FLIMEN operate on "complete xenophobia" and disseminate a lot of dangerous misinformation. She notes that the leprosy fear was based on a debunked quote by television commentator Lou Dobbs. Statistics like the number of illegal alien drivers who kill people daily would be impossible to determine, since municipalities don't generally make that a category in their record-keeping. Hanson points to a website called wecanstopthehate.org as a good source for separating myth from fact.
According to the National Immigration Law Center, "For over a century, the U.S. Supreme Court consistently has ruled that the federal government has broad and exclusive power to regulate immigration." But that hasn't stopped local governments from trying.
State Rep. Gayle Harrell (R-Stuart), who speaks Spanish and holds a master's degree in Latin American studies, has sponsored and promoted bills that would require the state to enforce immigration laws. One measure would require employers to use an "e-verify" system to prove that their workers are legal. Another would explicitly prohibit municipalities from opening centers like El Sol. (A similar center, called Buena Fe, opened in Loxahatchee Groves this spring based on the El Sol model, and another is planned for Lake Worth.) At presstime, it appeared that both bills would die before the end of the legislative session.
Other states are grappling with similar legislation. Some are placing the burden on landlords to check the immigration status of tenants. Oklahoma has made it a felony to shelter or transport illegal workers, and it allows citizens to sue employers if they believe they were let go in favor of an illegal immigrant. Arizona punishes businesses that hire illegal workers by revoking and suspending their business licenses. The governor of Maine recently signed an executive order requiring state police to enforce immigration laws. In some places, like Collier County, Florida, ICE has implemented a 287(g) program, which trains and authorizes local sheriff's deputies to enforce federal law. Under that program, local officers can check a worker's immigration status and initiate the deportation process.
Some cities — like San Francisco — have done the opposite, declaring themselves havens for illegal immigrants, going out of their way to welcome them in various languages and offer freedom from prosecution at schools and hospitals. Critics say that despite those cities' intentions, federal agents would still have the power to enforce the law wherever they choose.
At this point, protesters are ready to go beyond the sidewalk. John Parsons and Charlie Elliott traveled to Tallahassee on April 8 to speak during a hearing about the proposed legislation backed by Harrell.
Parsons recently mulled over the situation at El Sol. "I imagine there will be a lawsuit coming down the pike," he said, although FLIMEN currently has no intention of litigating. "Somebody's gotta challenge it."
That's the way protesters would like to see all the immigrants say adios. "It's called attrition through enforcement," says diver and former Marine Bob. You can forget about having to use taxpayer money to pay for buses, trains, and planes, he says. Once immigrants can't make any moolah here, they'll go back to where they came from.
It's a strategy that, in fact, may be working. The Inter-American Development Bank reported just last week that there has been a marked drop in the amount of money being sent by Latino immigrants back to their home countries in recent years as the economy and tough anti-immigration policies are taking hold.
Still, exhausting arguments about the financial costs or benefits of illegal workers continue. Anti-illegal-immigrant groups argue that the workers cost taxpayers billions of dollars, while proponents of easing immigration laws — notable among them former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan — say that immigrant workers build U.S. infrastructure and boost the economy.
An independent contractor named Russ Smozanek says that a legitimate employer would have to pay worker's compensation, liability insurance, and taxes to cover Social Security and Medicare. In addition, one would need to have paid for a business license and articles of incorporation. This could cost thousands of dollars, he says. Compare that with someone operating under the table, hiring an illegal worker for $7 or $10 an hour.
(One counterargument is that legitimate employers often do pay taxes and Social Security for workers — but undocumented ones can't collect the benefits because they are not eligible for Social Security cards.)
Robert Mergupis is a 48-year-old metal-stud framer who says he's been out of work for two years because he cannot compete with the low cost of illegal immigrant labor. "If my wife hadn't had a house deeded to her, we'd be homeless. People label me a bum, but I built all those single-family homes in the Bluffs. I'm protecting my life out here. I'm protecting you guys' families."
Mergupis attends a Catholic church. Of the Catholics' support of the day labor center, he says, "I feel they put a dagger in my heart."
One protester says: "I work at a grocery store. The immigrants get free milk — gallons and gallons. A lady has two kids and is pregnant and you see 'em put it in the back of their brand-new truck."
"Tuberculosis was just about cured 70 years ago; now it's coming back," says Jupiter resident Marianne Bonsignor. She explains that the immigration system was better a hundred years ago. "At Ellis Island, immigrants from Italy and Hungary would be shipped back if they had bad eyes. Only a certain quota was allowed." Criminal screening was better there too. "If they had a record back in Italy, they could check that." How? "You could go to any church. They've got it all written down in Latin. You could go see the priest and ask."
Sixty-year-old Leonor Mason chimes in: "My grandsons and their friends come home for summer vacation and there are no jobs for them. At night, you walk in the neighborhood — it's frightening. [The immigrants] urinate by the clock tower! At CVS, my God, they just loiter — it's hurting their business. They're shoplifting. Go in TJ Maxx, Ross — you don't have room to walk anymore."
Joseph Henry Timlin Jr., a master tile setter — "28 years in the trade, baby" — says he went to El Sol to find day work. "I thought I had a good chance." He says he took a number but didn't get hired. Like most of the protesters, he is white. He wishes more African-Americans would join the protesters' cause. If a white woman wanted to try going through the raffle process at El Sol, Timlin says, "Come armed, and bring your boyfriend. Illegal aliens commit a lot of rapes."
Marine Bob gets a kick out of the time he called the cops on a Mexican restaurant that was flying the Mexican flag withoutflying an American one in a position of superior prominence — a violation of U.S. Code, Title 4, Chapter 1, Section 7, Paragraph C, he recites. The cops, he said, made the restaurant fold up its flag.
Almost every time the light turns red and cars back up at the intersection, the protesters get at least one honk of support. Sometimes people chime, "Get 'em out of here!" or "Better days are coming!"
Less frequently, people argue: "Racist! I respect hard-working people better than you!" One passerby shouts out the window: "Oh yeah — you guys were all on the Mayflower! You're all fuckin' idiots."
It's about 11:30 a.m. when four giggling teenagers suddenly jump through the bushes carrying signs that say "I [Heart] Immigrants," "Buck Fush," and "Deport Yourself — You're an Immigrant Too."
"We are brothers!" shouts the only boy, 17-year-old Eric Lankford. He runs through the crowd of protesters and leans toward the windows of passing cars. "The melting pot is boiling over!" he wails, then bursts into laughter. His three female friends giggle and raise their signs high in the air.
This is something the protesters didn't count on: counterprotesters. Teenaged nihilists. Provocateurs who question everything.
"Shut up, you piece of junk, piece of trash," mutters John Barber, in his jean shorts.
"You hate your own family!" cries Lankford, jumping up and down.
"Speak for yourself, idiot," Barber says.
"I think that guy's got a problem," Marianne Bonsignor says worriedly.
"Everyone here is for Satan!" Lankford yells at cars, laughing.
"You're jumping around like a nut," Bonsignor says.
"They're radicals," John Parsons mumbles dismissively, trying not to take the bait.
"Hooray for communism!" Lankford shouts.
"If I had a son like that...," Bonsignor gasps. "He's got a brown sock and a black sock — is that weird or what?"
The protesters leapfrog the counterprotesters to get the more visible spot on the sidewalk. The counterprotesters leapfrog them. And so it goes, until the cops walk over.
Barber and another protester grill two of the girls about their beliefs. They admit that they don't know that much about illegal immigration and that they tagged along because they were bored. "You are talking like a little girl," Barber says condescendingly. "Educate yourself." She folds an arm across her chest as though embarrassed.
Lankford continues to jump and shout, waving a sign that says, "You can't be a pimp and a prostitute too!"
"It's better illegals get hired than idiots like you," Barber grumbles.
Eighteen-year-old Sarah O'Connor stands her ground as the protesters try to convince her that they are saving the jobs of her family and her generation. She knows better; she's president of Amnesty International at her high school. "The pilgrims weren't legal," she says. She believes the protesters' claims are bunk. Kids her age work at movie theaters, not at jobs based on physical labor, and she's never seen gang violence at her school. Most of her peers have gotten along fine with incoming immigrant students. "We're all cool with it," she says.
Bonsignor approaches the cops. "I don't think they should be permitted to use those signs," she states.
"Freedom of speech, ma'am," the officer replies.
"Yeah, but it's nasty speech." She herself has been holding a sign that says "Secure the Border" all day, but any irony is lost on her.
As the two groups — all white — crowd the sidewalk, a Hispanic male comes cruising down the lane on his bicycle. He looks oblivious to the fracas around him — and quite possibly about him.
He pedals by unfazed, headphones from his iPod tucked into his ears.