A protest outside a day-laborer center in Montgomery County yesterday morning drew dozens of demonstrators who clashed over whether county officials should use taxpayer funds to provide services to illegal aliens.
Separated by a line of police officers, the demonstrators taunted each other, often with profanity-laced insults, from across a street for several hours outside the county-owned center in Derwood beginning at around 8 a.m.
"This trailer is in better condition than our schools," said Brad Botwin, director of Help Save Maryland, an offshoot of the Help Save Virginia group that was formed to lobby local officials for tougher enforcement of immigration laws.
Protesters said they are angry elected officials in Montgomery County are supporting illegal aliens and the contractors who hire them with a new laborer center.
"I don't want to do what I'm doing here today, but there are times when the government is corrupt," said Ken Aldrich, operations director for the Maryland Minutemen Civil Defense Corps.
Mr. Aldrich wore a T-shirt with the message: "Be a patriot, not a criminal/Hire only legal workers."
More than 30 members of the Maryland Minutemen and American Border Patrol gathered at the laborer center and were met by a similar-sized group of counterprotesters from the D.C. Committee for Immigrant Rights, the Mexico Solidarity Network and the Salvadoran political party FMLN.
Counterprotesters said immigrants should be free to pursue freedom and happiness the same as other Americans whose families came here as immigrants.
"We are here to support the workers," said Sonia Umanzor, a counterprotester who said she came to the U.S. from El Salvador 25 years ago to escape a dictatorship.
The often-contentious debate over the center began more than two years ago, when Gaithersburg city officials tried to find a permanent site for a day-laborer center. After deals for several sites fell through, the city abandoned its plans late last year.
Montgomery County Executive Isiah "Ike" Leggett announced in January that he would set aside a half-acre parcel on an industrial stretch of county-owned land off Crabbs Branch Way just outside Gaithersburg to build the center, which opened on April 16.
Two weeks later, a deliberately set fire slightly damaged the double-wide trailer that houses the center. Police are investigating the fire as a hate crime.
Organizers yesterday said they wanted to remind Mr. Leggett that some residents still oppose the center, one of three in the county operated by the group Casa of Maryland.
Demonstrators said they hope to duplicate the success of similar grass-roots efforts in Northern Virginia, where officials in Prince William and Loudoun counties recently adopted resolutions that restrict public services for illegal aliens.
Officials in those counties said grass-roots groups were instrumental in drumming up support for the resolutions.
Police stood by, but the protest outside the Derwood center yesterday produced no incidents or arrests, and about 20 laborers visited the center undisturbed by demonstrators.
Fernando Garavito, who manages the center, said small bands of protesters routinely show up during the week.
"That is a good thing in this country, that you have freedom of speech," he said.
Mr. Garavito said that although the center does not check the immigration status of the immigrants who come looking for work, they all pay taxes, like every other American.
"It's a free country. They have all the right to protest," said Tona Cravioto, an employment specialist at the center. "It doesn't bother us."