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Mi Casa Is Not Tu Casa

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.

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Deirdra Funcheon