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Grass roots groups challenge illegals

Since immigration reform has stalled in Congress, the focus has become local.

Published October 17, 2006

CAPE CORAL - As undocumented immigrants planned a boycott in the spring to demonstrate their economic clout, Anthony Maida and his wife, Mary Ann Redman, came up with a counter plan.

The retired couple gathered a few hundred names of volunteers ready to fill in as dishwashers, janitors and construction workers the day of the boycott.

As it turned out, they weren't needed. But the response inspired Maida and Redman to launch Americans Standing Tall, a group striving to get local governments to enforce laws against undocumented immigrants.

"We just believe strongly in this cause," said Redman, 71, a retired lawyer from Ohio. "And primarily, our cause is America, America with laws that are obeyed and enforced."

They aren't alone. Since immigration reform has stalled in Congress, the battle has shifted to city halls and statehouses around the country. Groups such as Americans Standing Tall make up a growing grass roots movement bent on pushing undocumented immigrants out of their communities.

By one count, the number of such groups nationwide has grown in two years from under 40 to more than 200. In Florida - one of the states with the most groups - the number has increased from two to 12. In a coming together of the statewide movement, Citizens Against Illegal Immigrants is hosting a rally Sunday in Fort Myers.

"We are concerned about the rise of these groups," said Devin Burghart, who monitors the groups for the nonprofit Center for New Community in Chicago. "We think they are a severe threat to civil and human rights."

So far, about a dozen cities - from Hazleton, Pa., to Escondido, Calif. - have passed anti-illegal immigrant ordinances. Scores more are proposed. In Florida, Avon Park in Highlands County and Palm Bay in Brevard County gave initial but not final approval to similar ordinances.

In southwest Florida, members of Americans Standing Tall have attended meetings of the Cape Coral City Council and the Lee County Commission in Fort Myers, where 75,000 people marched in support of immigrants on April 10.

Maida and Redman have presented officials with a petition signed by about 1,500 people demanding that local governments prevent businesses from hiring undocumented immigrants, landlords from renting to them and that English be enforced as the official language.

Each point, they contend, is backed up by an existing state or federal law that officials refuse to enforce.

'New nativism'

The movement started with the Save Our State group in San Bernandino, Calif., two years ago, and gained momentum with highly publicized patrols on the border by members of the Minutemen earlier this year.

At first, there were 37 groups nationally that spoke out against illegal immigrants, according to the Center for New Community. Two years later, 223 such groups are actively organizing against illegal immigrants in virtually every part of the country.

The groups are part of what the Center for New Community calls a "new nativism."

Anti-illegal immigrant groups would take away immigrants' "jobs, take away their cars, take away their housing," Burghart said. "The idea that you are going to have to prove citizenship to do something as basic as renting an apartment is incredibly regressive."

Cities like Hazleton have faced lawsuits, but a key Web site used by the groups - - promotes two model ordinances the groups believe can withstand legal challenges.

The two ordinances would curtail housing and employment for undocumented immigrants. They encourage local police agencies to enforce immigration laws and promote English as the official language.

The rally hosted by Citizens Against Illegal Immigrants Sunday at Centennial Park in Fort Myers will be followed by a "Secure Our Borders" motorcycle ride through Lee and Collier counties to Naples.

"We have to inform the public that illegal immigration is out of control in this country," said Russ Landry, 47, a former security officer who is acting president of Citizens Against Illegal Aliens. "It has become an invasion."

One speaker at the rally will be Tom Macklin, who resigned recently as mayor of Avon Park after his anti-illegal immigrant ordinance failed to pass. He is now running for lieutenant governor with the Reform Party.

After the defeat of a similar ordinance in Palm Bay, a political action committee called Silent Majority of Florida formed to resurrect the issue. The group intends to gather signatures to bring the ordinance to a referendum. It would only seek to make it a crime for businesses to hire undocumented immigrants.

"I'm being asked to speak at every homeowners association," said David Isnardi, the leader of the effort who works in the Brevard County clerk's office and hosts a talk-radio show Sunday evenings. "Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of people support this thing."

Grass roots victory

At the national level, some grass roots groups have had some high-profile successes.

In North Carolina last year, Americans for Legal Immigration-PAC helped fight off a bill that would have allowed undocumented students to pay in-state college tuition.

William Gheen, who founded the group after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, said the laws passed at the local and state levels already are accomplishing their intended purpose.

"The tide has turned against illegal aliens now, and many are starting to consider leaving the country," said Gheen, 39, from Raleigh, N.C. "They are already fleeing Georgia and Pennsylvania because of local enforcement in those states, and it's spreading quickly around the country."

Some of these groups say they only target undocumented immigrants but have a "more insidious" agenda, including restricting rights for both legal and illegal immigrants, Burghart said.

Maria Rodriguez of the Florida Immigrant Coalition said anti-illegal immigrant groups thrive on spreading misinformation such as that undocumented immigrants collect welfare or that they don't pay taxes.

She said anti-illegal immigrant groups who complain the workers come here illegally don't realize it's nearly impossible to come legally.

"The No. 1 myth that people have is that people don't want to come legally," she said. "People would come legally if there was a way. That's why we need reform."

In Ormond Beach, fighting unfair business competition led to the formation of People of the USA, said co-founder Brent Zdun.

After working for decades in the construction trades in Florida, Zdun said he and his father, Larry Zdun, 61, found they could no longer compete with contractors who paid cheaper wages to undocumented immigrants. So they left the business.

"We are not against anybody coming to America. It's a melting pot," said Brent Zdun, 33, adding that his group has gathered 8,000 dues-paying members in eight months. "But what we want is for people to come here legally, melt into American society."

In Cape Coral, Maida names more than a dozen men in his family who have served in the military - including his Italian immigrant father who served in World War I - to explain his determination to fight illegal immigration.

Maida, who moved to Florida after retiring from an electronics firm in New York, said he would have no problem if today's undocumented immigrants came to the country the way his parents did: legally through Ellis Island.

"We did it, and all the Italian people ... did the same thing," said Maida, a World War II veteran. "They had their culture, but they spoke English."


A growing movement

A few years ago, Floridians for Sustainable Population in Pompano Beach and Citizens of Dade United were the lone voices against illegal immigration in Florida, a state with an estimated 800,000 undocumented immigrants. Now, according to the Center for New Community, there are many more:

- Americans Standing Tall, Cape Coral.

- Florida Minutemen, Fort Myers.

- We Are So P----- Off, Pensacola.

- Minutemen Civil Defense Corps, Orlando.

- Silent Majority of Florida, Palm Bay.

- Florida ZPG, Palm City.

- Report Illegals, Pompano Beach.

- Floridians for Immigration Enforcement, Hialeah.

Two other groups - People of the USA in Ormond Beach and Citizens Against Illegal Aliens in Fort Myers - have not yet shown up in the center's count.

[Last modified October 17, 2006, 05:07:00]

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