the powder keg that didn’t explode

Brent Finnegan -- March 30th, 2007

The meeting organized by members of the Minutemen was packed tonight. I counted at least 175 local conservatives, liberals, college students, anarchists, rednecks, activists, and Latinos packed shoulder-to-shoulder in the sweltering hot conference room at the Ramada. If you showed up after 7, it was standing room only.

As the five member panel took their seats, you could have cut the political tension with a knife. George Taplin of the Minutemen, Joyce Muncci of FAIR, Sam Nickels of New Bridges, William Buchanan of ANCIR, and Rick Castaneda of the Hispanic Services Council got up to speak. One by one they explained problems, presented evidence, and made their cases for and against cracking down on illegal immigration. Castaneda’s speech, appealing to peoples’ consciences, won a standing ovation from immigrant sympathizers, who appeared at that point to outnumber the deportation crowd by almost two-to-one.

Castaneda pointed out that all three of the panel members supporting deportation of undocumented immigrants were out-of-towners, while he and Nickels are Harrisonburg residents. It was as if to say, “Who are these outsiders coming to stir things up in our hometown?” That point seemed to strike a chord with many in the room. Taplin kept saying that members of the community asked him to come, but refused to say who. A local named Matt Garner eventually raised his hand and said he was one of the people who requested the visit.

Taplin said he invited every city council and county BoS member in a 30 mile radius, but none replied. In fact, Carolyn Frank was the only elected official that showed up (she and Charlie Chenault were the only council members at the immigration discussion group on March 6th). There were no law enforcement officers there, either. The only policemen I saw were outside, responding to some unrelated incident in the parking lot. Apparently the rest of our elected officials were either scared off by the idea of being associated with what was originally going to be a Minutemen meeting, or they’re all experts on immigration, and don’t want or need input from their constituents.

As the meeting moved into the Q&A and discussion section, the media began to split in order file their stories and meet deadlines (I believe WMRA‘s Martha Woodroof was the only member of the local media that stuck around long after the meeting was over). The tension in the room was no less palpable. I think everyone was wondering if a huge fight was going to erupt at some point. Remarkably, none did. Maybe this is the friendly city after all. Or at least the civil city. For the most part, the panel members did a great job of keeping a lid on the bickering, and keeping the focus on the issues. By no account did the factions agree with each other, but some genuine community dialog and discussion took place in that room tonight.

In a sea of mostly white faces, one Latino woman took a bold step and spoke out in flawless English about her undocumented husband. Every day he goes to work, she lives in fear that her husband won’t make it back to the family, having been nabbed by ICE agents or the police.

George Taplin made several references to his successes in implementing Section 287 (g) in Herndon, just two hours north of here. Essentially it allows local law enforcement to work in conjunction with ICE, and deport illegal immigrants for simply being undocumented (as opposed to deporting them when they are found breaking some other law, as is currently the case in H’burg… well, compared to Herndon, anyway). Taplin’s campaign in his own town of Herndon has resulted in many deportations from immigrant neighborhoods there. At the end of the meeting, he invited interested locals to stick around to discuss starting a grassroots movement to implement 287 (g) in Harrisonburg, modeled after his campaign in Herndon. Several people cheered when Taplin assured everyone he was not trying to start a Harrisonburg chapter of the Minutemen.

The question of the night was: do we as a community want Harrisonburg to be the next Herndon? Since most members of our local government were notably absent from the meeting, it’s unclear which way the wind will blow. But one thing is certain: the wind will blow.

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