Towards Coexistence: Reducing Tension and Violence Against Immigrants in Northern Virginia
Background: Centreville Immigration Forum
The Centreville Immigration Forum (CIF) began in the fall of 2007 as a project of the Outreach Committee of Wellspring United Church of Christ, and this group began a series of open community dialogues to discuss the impacts of immigration in Centreville. Meetings were held monthly during 2007-9, beginning at the Community Room of Centreville Regional Library, and continuing at the Sully Government Center community room, with opportunity for neighbors to hear a variety of opinions. After several initial “open mike” sessions, participants benefitted from a series of speakers and panelists from local government and other agencies who work with immigrants in some way (including police, political leaders, and legal and social service organizations). Presentations allowed participants to have better information on the scope of change facing the Centreville community. All meetings were advertised in local media, and open to the public. Alice Foltz, grant recipient, served as convener of the Forum from its inception.
Since the spring of 2009, Forum participants are primarily from local churches and organizations which have outreach to local immigrants; this includes 6 groups that offer ESL instruction and other assistance to low-income immigrants. For these participants, the Forum has provided a way to cooperate and share information, to provide better services, and to avoid overlapping efforts.
The presence of day laborers in Centreville has been a factor in community feeling since about 2006; the Forum, through its various participants, has been able to learn to know this worker community, including data, stories and needs. Throughout the process, Forum participants have regularly shared with the Sully District Police and with other local leaders to support their work of keeping our community safe and healthy. Tensions over immigration in adjacent communities led in 2007 to noisy demonstrations by “minute men” and other groups, and the subsequent closure of a government-supported worker center (Herndon, VA); and, also in 2007, to the passage of a tough anti-immigrant ordinance (similar to AZ 1070) in Prince William Co., VA. The Prince William ordinance followed angry public sessions, demonstrations, political shifts and increased community divisions. Some of the folks involved in outreach to immigrants in Centreville felt that it might be possible to create a space where more reasonable public discussion could take place in our community.
IPRAF Grant Report:
In January 2010, Alice Foltz, the grant recipient, began discussions with the Wellspring UCC Council about the possibility of hosting summer young adult volunteers, who could assist with interviews of workers and local residents. The United Church of Christ Young Adult Volunteer Communities provided the volunteers through a national search, and provided orientation and insurance; Wellspring UCC provided housing, transportation costs, some meals, and supervision for the volunteers. The IPRAF grant paid for the stipends ($100 per week, total $1700), and will help with costs of publication of the report in printed brochure form ($1300).
The specific objectives of this project were (1)collection of data about the community’s response to immigrants and (2)creation of a document that could be a vehicle for sharing stories within the community. In addition, we used demographics that help explain the need for work on this issue.
In February 2010, CIF was invited to respond to the challenge of local business owner A.J. Dwoskin, who, in response to concern expressed by his tenants, sought to find a safer and less public location for the local day workers. In order to respond to this challenge, the Forum began the process of formal organization, and began to raise private funds to operate a proposed worker center that will provide greater safety for the entire Centreville community.
On June 1, 2010, Supervisor Michael Frey (R), who is supportive of the project, held a public meeting to allow opponents to express their concerns. This was a loud and contentious meeting, thoroughly covered by local and even some national media. The opponents of the project felt they had “won,” but ultimately, the meeting had positive impact for public awareness and for recruiting new volunteers for the work with immigrants. However, it was in this heated atmosphere that Alice Foltz, along with other volunteers, began work on the research project in June.
Volunteer Melanie Fox arrived in June 2010, and she began quickly to get acquainted with the community, and to interview local businessmen about their views. After an orientation with church outreach worker Connie Rojas, Melanie began interviews with workers. With the second volunteer, Tim Meadows (who began in early July), it was possible to begin a series of interviews with the workers. Melanie and Tim were assisted throughout the summer by Rojas and by other volunteers including Foltz. Interviews were taped, translated and transcribed. During the summer, Foltz, Fox, and Meadows met with researchers from the Brookings Institute, who were completing a study on suburban poverty and demographic change; the Brookings researchers guided us to statistical data available from the Census Bureau.
Fox is bilingual in Spanish and English; Meadows is certified in ESOL instruction, and also has degrees in music and in theology. During the summer, the team realized that nearly all Centreville’s day laborers come from one mountainous, indigenous Ixil-language area of Guatemala (Quiché). Meadows shared indigenous music which he had discovered, through contacts in Guatemala, and the workers were very happy to have their music recognized and appreciated. They began to talk about a traditional festival they have in August, and the team encouraged them to plan a Fiesta here. They held practices 3 or 4 times each week for more than a month, and produced an amazing party for the Guatemalan community and some invited and supportive folks from CIF. (This was not publicly advertised.) There were about 120 persons present, about half long-time Centreville residents. The planning and pride that came through this event supported leadership development among the worker community, and respect among the outside community. The Fiesta was covered positively in the local newspaper, with a big spread of photos. This planning of a Fiesta was not planned at the beginning of the Grant process, but was one of the best results.
Ixil dancers, with (back row) volunteer Melanie Fox, translator/coordinator Connie Rojas, volunteer Tim Meadows; and (front row, center) Alice Foltz and Jerry Foltz (August 13, 2010)
Since the Fiesta, the workers performed by invitation at an international festival at a local elementary school, and they are planning a public performance as a fund-raiser for the proposed worker center. The workers’ own organization and work together has been very positive for them. They selected members to serve on the new CIF Board of Directors; and some are working as a committee to develop Rules for the proposed Center.
At the end of the summer, Fox and Meadows worked with Foltz to select parts of the interview material that could be useful as handouts to the community, to be used primarily by CIF in its outreach and educational efforts. This was completed during the fall. This brochure material is now in process of being formatted and prepared for publication. A copy is attached. Material from the brochure has already been used in a power-point that is being presented in talks to community groups.
Results of IPRAF Grant:
1. Increased unity and pride among the immigrant worker community
2. Discussion of issues related to immigrants and day laborers, among the Centreville business community. The process of interviewing and visiting large numbers of businesses, and listening to their feelings, has been equally as important as the product.
3. Increased data for the work of the Centreville Immigration Forum, in its effort to raise money to provide a Center and other services to low-income immigrants.
4. Recognition of the value of reducing tension through discussion and sharing of views and experiences. This has been recognized by the central role given to the project by political leaders (Fairfax Co. Supervisor Michael Frey), business leaders (shopping center owner A. J. Dwoskin), and by many others in the community who have contributed to the organization with time and money. The project has become a model that is being discussed in other communities.
Stories & Views of Immigrant Life in Centreville, VA
“Toward Coexistence” includes research completed during summer 2010 in Centreville, Virginia. The committee of researchers included Alice Foltz, Melanie Fox, Tim Meadows, Olga Garcia Harper, Connie Rojas, Esther Holtermann, and Sara Little. Fox and Meadows were summer volunteers through the United Church of Christ/Alliance of Baptist “Companion Communities” volunteer program for young adults. The work was supported by a grant from the International Peace Research Association Foundation, and by Wellspring United Church of Christ. Volunteers worked closely with the Centreville Immigration Forum (CIF) during the summer.
The goal of the project was to reduce tension and unrest surrounding low-income immigrants in Centreville. The project has helped to prepare the community for a proposed worker center, and has encouraged the workers to work together to achieve their own goals.
CIF and Wellspring United Church of Christ are grateful for the contributions to this project by many, including persons who are not named, but supported the project with time and interest. Persons quoted in the report are intentionally not named, but the research was completed with great care for accuracy. All participants gave permission for their comments to be used in print.
Special thanks to George Crossman and Nancy Van Gordon for their assistance with editing and preparing the report for publication. Finally, special appreciation goes to Melanie Fox, who organized and completed much of the writing for the project.
Everyone deserves a voice. This anecdotal collection of quotes and stories attempts to give a voice to people from a variety of backgrounds, cultural ethnic/identities, occupations, socio-economic statuses, and perspectives.
When people do not know each other, it is much easier to make stereotypes and judgments about each other. The purpose of this project is to help people in the community understand each other by giving them the opportunity to share and listen to each others’ stories.
Melanie Fox and Tim Meadows, who became involved and interested in the day laborer issue in Centreville, VA, through the Centreville Immigration Forum and the Wellspring United Church of Christ, gathered the anecdotal data presented in this collection of quotes and stories. This interview project was conducted during summer 2010.
Table of Contents
Perspective 1: Centreville Day Laborers
Perspective 2: Business community
(Centreville shopping centers)
Perspective 3: Centreville community members
Stories from the community
Centreville Day Laborers
Why did you leave your home country to come here?
• “Because of the lack of work and the poverty in my country”
• “There are so many opportunities here that we are almost obligated to come to the US”
• “I came here to work and support my family in Guatemala”
• One day laborer said that he was a postman in Guatemala. His salary was enough for a person to get by on, but he learned that he could make $10 an hour in the U.S., which is seven times more than what he would be making in Guatemala, so he started thinking about coming to the U.S.
• “I am helping pay for my brother to be able to go to school”
• “ Where I lived in Guatemala, you can only earn $3-5 per day”
• “I help pay for my two sisters back in Guatemala to go to school. My father asks me for financial help sometimes too.”
What type of work is most frequent for you?
• painting and laying floor
• construction and remodeling
• cleaning houses, offices buildings, airplanes, etc.
• retail jobs at large companies
• cooking and cleaning at restaurants
How often do you work?
• “I usually work three or four days a week”
• “I work for the same boss every week for at least three days a week. Sometimes I go to the corner to find more work if I only work two days that week. Also, my friends call me and say they need another person, so I work with them whenever I get the opportunity.”
• “I worked five or six days per week when I first got here three months ago, but now I have only been able to find work two or three days per week”
• “I work three to four hours on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday nights as a dishwasher at a restaurant. Sometimes I am able to find one or two days of work by coming out to the corner during the day”
What are your plans for being here, or for returning home?
• “I thought I would be here only 3 years, but I’ve been here 3 more years than what I thought.”
• “Eventually, when I go back to Guatemala, I want to go back to school to be an engineer.”
• “My plan was to be here for 3 years, but I’ve been here for 5 and I don’t think I’m going back.”
What do you think about the fact that some people are bothered that you are standing outside on the corner?
• “Part of our culture is to stop and greet people and talk to them for a long time. We should maybe stop and just talk for maybe 5 or 10 minutes, but it’s just part of our culture to stop and talk for 30 minutes or more. We aren’t trying to be delinquents.”
What do you think about the proposed worker center?
• “The problem right now is that contractors come to pick up one worker and 20 workers run at their car, so having a center will create more order and it will be safer than it is now.”
• “At first, having a center is not going to be easy or fix everything immediately. Things will change little by little and eventually get better.”
Perspective 2: Business Owners
(Centreville shopping centers)
Has the presence of the day laborers affected your business?
• The owner of a business near where the day laborers hang out explains that the amount of money his own business takes in has dropped by about 50% in the last two years. He continued:
• “We lost business because the economy is bad, not because of these people [who stand out on the corner
• He makes the point that if some of the other business owners around this area are trying to argue that their businesses are doing poorly because of the day laborers, that doesn’t make sense because his business is specifically geared toward Latinos. If this argument held any water, then theoretically his business should not have suffered as much, however his revenue intake has still gone down significantly. He believes that everyone is suffering from the drop in the economy not because of the presence of day laborers.
Do you notice the day laborers in or around your store?
• One business owner sees them standing outside of his store for a few hours sometimes, but they also come in his store sometimes to buy his merchandise.
• Sometimes, the day laborers stand out in front of one business owner’s store and just talk for one or two hours or more. Several times he has gone outside and told them to move because it is not okay for them to be standing there for so long. However, he said he understands why they are there. “They’re just out there to kill time and talk with friends,” he explains.
Have you witnessed any cases of day laborers being taken advantage of by their employers?
• One business owner reported that he saw a contractor dropping off a Hispanic day laborer near his store. Apparently the contractor gave the worker breakfast, lunch, and $5 in cash for working in some type of construction for the whole day. One of the employees at his store went outside and helped translate since the worker did not speak much English. Ultimately, the contractor did not end up paying the worker more than the $5 for the whole day.
• “One time I witnessed an argument between a group of four day laborers and an employer. The employer was paying the guys $15 per person for working all day, so they were trying to get him to pay them more but in the end he did not.”
Do you think the day laborers are a negative presence in the community?
• As far as the perceptions of the day laborers, one of the business owners commented that it is unfortunate that people are scared of them or see them as trouble makers because “there are only a few of them that mess things up and make it bad for everyone.”
• Another business owner thinks that crime is not unique to the Latino community and that with “any group of people there are always going to be a few bad apples” whether that group is Caucasian, African American, Latino, or anything else.
Business owners are immigrants too…
• The owner of one business in the Centreville Square Shopping Center is an immigrant from an Asian country. He opened his business in Centreville seven months ago. He stated that he is not for or against the proposed worker center. He later he went on to say that it might be a good solution because it seems like it would be good for both the workers and the business owners in the shopping center. He says that in general he is not bothered by the presence of the workers. In fact, he actually used some of the workers when he first opened his store to help with construction and installation inside his business.
• The owner of another business is an immigrant to the US from the Middle East. She also mentioned that she used some of the workers to help remodel the inside of her store.
• One business owner who is an immigrant feels that the workers presence is threatening his business. He says he understands the day laborers’ situation because he is an immigrant himself, but he wishes that the day laborers would not affect his business. He believes that it is not fair that he is having to pay more every year for a security guard. He expressed that the proposed worker center should be built further away from the shopping center.
• Another business owner is an immigrant from Latin America. He came to the US on a work visa and now owns his own business.
Other Members of the Centreville Community
Why are you concerned about the immigrant community in Centreville?
• “I am a doer and if there is something I can do, I like to be able to get involved.”
• “I kind of have my own personal struggle which is that I don’t have patience when I see people being treated unfairly.”
• “I believe that, from the beginning, the idea of communication has always been important to the Forum. We tend to categorize people as the Latinos, the Koreans, the rich, the poor. Therefore anything that helps different groups of people get to know each other and to communicate with each other is helpful for the community as a whole.”
• “It has also been an important aspect of the Forum to bring together all denominations, non profits, community members, and any other interested people or groups. In fact, the CIF has done just that, pulling together people from a lot of different places. It has brought together an interdenominational connectedness especially of Centreville Baptist, Korean Church, Centreville Presbyterian, and also county people in social services as well as community members.
What do you think about the Centreville Immigration Forum (CIF)?
• “It is a good venue to voice concerns to learn more about other groups, to dialogue about what their fears and concerns are.”
• “Even though many of the participants in the CIF are in favor of the day laborer center, not all the participants of the CIF are. For example, some people at the meetings have expressed that they did not like immigrants standing on the corner and had concern about immigrants owning too many of the businesses in the area.”
• “It has created a greater awareness of the day laborer issue in Centreville.”
• “It is needed so that we can build bridges between groups of people in the Centreville community. It will help to foster diversity, so that there is not the separation that we have now. It’s a matter of communicating, learning, and recognizing that our world is changing.”
• “It has stirred people up a bit, but maybe people need to be stirred up.”
How will a worker center be helpful for Centreville?
• “It makes more sense to do something than to do nothing.”
• “It’s absolutely going to be beneficial. When you can take steps to help people help themselves that can only be beneficial.”
• “The best solution would be immigration reform, but we cannot control that here in Centreville so at least a day laborer center will be a better and more organized way for the day laborers and for the community.”
Stories from Centreville
Story 1 – A Citizen Day Laborer
He is a United States citizen raised in Washington D.C. He builds and installs doors for a living, but is having difficulty finding steady work. After losing his full-time job in March, he began looking for work on the sidewalk beside Centerville Library, knowing that contractors frequently hire people from the area. Typically, he will begin looking for work around 7:30 in the morning but will return home around 12:30 in the afternoon if there aren’t many contractors hiring. With business slowing down over the past weeks, he works about two days a week. When asked if it was harder to get work because of the immigrants, he said that it was, but he also stated that the proposed worker site would help him find work. By having more people on the street looking for work, there is more competition for a decreasing number of jobs. With a centralized place for workers, it would be easier to find employment.
Story 2 – An Immigrant
She has been in the U.S. for nine years. She moved here from South America after being a math teacher at a high school in her country for 16 years. She has a bachelor’s degree in math education from a public university in her country. Her husband’s brother and his family came to the United States first and then convinced her and her husband to come here as well. She and her husband came here on resident visas, and they now have permanent residency papers.
When she first got here she did not like it because she did not know English which made finding a job difficult. A year after she and her husband arrived, she started working at MacDonald’s and worked there for almost three years. Also, it was difficult for her to go from being a teacher to working at MacDonald’s. She said her life here was very different from her life in Peru and “me dolía” (it hurt me). She really enjoyed being a math teacher and misses it a lot. The only reason she and her husband are here and working so hard is so that their children can have better opportunities than they could otherwise have in their home country. She said that you can attend public universities for free in her country, but once you graduate it is difficult to find a job. She is studying to take the test to become a U.S. citizen and is planning on taking the test in about a month.
Story 3 – An Immigrant Day Laborer
He is from Guatemala and has been in Centreville for two and half years. He is nineteen years old and has been working here in the US since he was fifteen years old.
When he first got here, he was in Houston and he worked in a restaurant for three months. Then he went to Florida and worked cleaning windows on buildings and eventually started working in a restaurant there. He also worked planting and harvesting tomatoes, oranges, and grapes for three months there.
All of his family is still in Guatemala. He has some cousins in Florida. He has two sisters and one little brother in Guatemala. His father works in a grocery store in his town in Guatemala while his mother stays at home and takes care of their children.
He attended school until he was 15 years old and then came here. He was in school in Guatemala City for 4 years and lived with some friends there. He said that it was his decision to move here. His family didn’t want him to come because he would be coming alone. They told him that he needs to stay here and stay in school and study. However, he didn’t have enough money to continue going to school, so that’s why he started thinking about moving here to save money to later return and finish studying.
He thought he would be here only three years but he has been here longer than what he thought he would be. He wants to go back to school to be an engineer. He said that he is also helping his family financially by paying for his two sisters to go to school. In addition, his father asks him for financial help sometimes too.
When asked how he feels about supporting his family financially and the sacrifices he is making for them, he explained that he feels really good about it. He said that he loves his family and his family loves him, and it makes him feel good to know that he is able to help them.
Story 4- An Immigrant Day Laborer
As a day laborer in the US, he has seen abuse of workers in other states. He avoids standing on the corner because he has seen workers picked up and lost. Because of this experience, he hopes for a worker center.
He is in the US because his family and community were severely affected by the Guatemalan civil war. The war and the hard times that followed made education impossible, and his family’s farm life was gone. He has a dream to save money to buy a little land for farming.
“It (the war) started because poor people wanted land – so they (the government) said – but it’s not clear what the people did. If 4 soldiers came to our home, they would kill us. There was no well-organized behavior. If poor people had weapons, even sticks, the soldiers had a right to kill them. There was no unity or organized approach to the war. The government started in Ixil country because there were no factories like there were on the coast. The people wanted land, but it was cold earth without people to grow crops. The soldiers were supposed to be going after rich people, but mainly they went after poor farmers.”
(After the war) “We became mute. We didn’t have family, house or food. They had burned down our house, our lands, and robbed everyone of horses, goats etc. We didn’t know if they ate them, killed them, stole them or sold them. They had just disappeared.
My uncle had 7,700 cuerdas of land with large trees. The trees had all been cut down because they thought people would be hiding among them. The earth was naked.”
“When the war ended, I was almost 9 years old. I went to school because a cousin gave me things for school for three or four months. Then Mother wouldn’t give me supplies to stay in school. ‘No, better to go to the coast (to work).’ And my father said after 2 years had passed, ‘Son, you go to school again.’ But I didn’t get to go until August and then we had to go to the coast again. Three years passed. Then 7 months more and I was 13 or 14 years. No, I thought, ‘I’ll work and help Mother and Father,’ so I grew up at the coast (working). It wasn’t their (my parents’) fault.
Story 5 – A Business Owner
Being an immigrant himself, he understands the difficulties that people encounter as they adjust to a new culture, but he was quick to point out that people need to immigrate legally as his family did.
While he doesn’t think that it is morally right to help people find employment who are here illegally, he recognizes that illegal immigration will not stop unless the government enforces existing laws, and that will not necessarily reduce the number of people already here. Since people are here anyway, a worker center is a workable option provided that it is located away from the Shopping Center.
He stressed that any groups of people loitering in front of his store could likely affect business and shouldn’t be allowed to congregate, regardless of documentation status.
Story 6 – A Business Owner
This business owner and her family are immigrants themselves, so they are very empathetic of the challenges people have to face as they adjust to life in a new country. They have experienced adjusting to life in different countries twice in their lives. Having only been in this country for a few months, she hired day laborers to move heavy objects when building her house and setting up her store, solving her need for assistance and their need for work. Since opening the business, she has not heard any complaints about the day laborers from her clientele, many of whom are of Middle-eastern or Hispanic origin. She has not been following the current controversy over the proposed worker center very closely, but she voiced no opposition to the center.
Story 7 – A Community Member
Her involvement in the Centreville community grew from getting involved in missions and outreach at her church. Now, as a staff person at her church, she tries to stay connected to what is going on in the community. Several years ago, she noticed that there were lots of immigrants in the apartment complex across from the library. As a church, they did a variety of outreach activities such as having a young mothers group, meeting with the immigrants and doing crafts, having cookouts, and doing any other activities they could to get to know the community. Because of all of this, it was “just a natural thing to want to be involved” in the Immigration Forum. She thinks that the proposed worker center “will be beneficial because it appears that the workers are in favor of it, and it will pull people away from the library which, for many, has been a concern.”
APPENDIX: Census Data
Figures from the American Community Survey of the US Census Bureau:
Centreville 1990 2000 2006-8*
Total Population 26,585 48,537 50,996
Foreign Born (#) 2,336 9,892 16,726
Foreign Born (% of total population) 8.8% 20.4% 32.8%
Poor^ (#) 811 1,452 2,749
Poor (% of total population) 3.1% 3.0% 5.4%
Fairfax County 1990 2000 2006-8*
Total Population 818,584 969,749 1,005,980
Foreign Born (#) 127,506 237,677 278,310
Foreign Born (% of total population) 15.6% 24.5% 27.7%
Poor (#) 28,210 43,396 50,268
Poor (% of total population) 3.4% 4.5% 5.0%
* American Community Survey (ACS) 3-year estimate. Yearly data are available only for geographies
with population greater than 65,000.
^ This statistic represents the number of people with yearly income below the Federal Poverty Level, which is adjusted
annually for inflation
In the past 2 decades, Centreville’s population has doubled, and the percentage of immigrants (foreign-born) has also grown. During the past decade, (2000-2008) when the immigrant population has grown by 12%, the overall population has grown less than 5%. Similar change has affected all of Fairfax County, but the growth has been most dramatic in Centreville.
Poverty exists in Centreville, as it does throughout Fairfax County; however, the Commonwealth Institute reported in 2010 that northern Virginia’s immigrants have a median income of $25,000, which is higher than native-born Virginians in other regions of the state. (Native-born residents of northern Virginia have a $40,000 median income.)
CI also reports that one-third of all entrepreneurial activity in northern Virginia is by foreign-born residents. This is clear in Centreville, where approximately 50% of shop-owners in local shopping areas are foreign-born.
1) Immigrant workers in Centreville are here to escape from the devastating effects of war, poverty, or both. They are here because, mathematically and economically, it makes more sense for them to earn money here than in their own countries. They are striving to build a better life for themselves and their families.
2) Centreville has a significant number of residents who were born in another country (32% as of 2008), and approximately 50% of shopping center business owners are foreign-born.
3) At least one community member expressed a concern that it is “not okay for people to be standing outside of the shopping center or around the library for long periods of time, regardless of race, age, or status. “
Workers stand on the street to look for work, and also because this kind of gathering is typical in the countries they come from. Town centers or plazas where people gather and talk are common in most Latin American countries, but not in US suburban communities. In Centreville, this difference in culture has led to tension and misunderstanding, and knowing about the cultural differences can help both sides to understand each other.
The Centerville Immigration Forum, using the resources provided by a grant to Alice Foltz from the International Peace Research Association Foundation, has put together this collection, and responded to a proposal for a worker center, with the goal of reducing tension and misunderstanding, and improving the quality of life for all people in our community.