- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 23, 2006

Maryland’s largest immigrant advocacy group is training supporters to keep close watch on the members of an illegal-alien watchdog group as they monitor day laborers.

CASA of Maryland and the American Civil Liberties Union of Maryland have offered four training sessions for legal observers who would videotape and document interactions between the Maryland Minutemen and day laborers seeking work.

About 70 people, many of them law students, have attended the training sessions, organizers say.

“Both groups have the constitutional right to public right of ways and to free speech,” CASA staff attorney Steve Smitson told about 20 people Wednesday at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Silver Spring. “But one group’s rights cannot infringe upon one another, and that’s what legal observers are there for.”

Groups of two or three legal observers per site will photograph and document in notebooks any confrontations, gestures, name-calling or incidents of harassment by the laborers or the Minutemen.

CASA, which receives taxpayer funds, will provide videocameras, notebooks, jackets and other equipment to observers. Observers are discouraged from stepping in during arguments, and are told to carry cell phones to call police or CASA officials if they see a potential danger.

Mr. Smitson said the goal is to avoid confrontation and legal liability.

“We’re not there to be arrested, commit civil disobedience or protest,” he said. “You’re not there as an advocate [or] holding a banner. The observer must maintain neutrality, which is not the same as a counterprotest.”

The Maryland Minutemen, and a similar group in Herndon, aim to deter illegal immigration by videotaping employers hiring illegal aliens at day laborer sites and giving the information to federal and local tax and business licensing authorities.

CASA runs centers in Wheaton, Silver Spring and Takoma Park. Others are planned for Baltimore, Gaithersburg and Langley Park.

Officials have trained day workers to travel in groups and turn their backs if they do not want to be photographed.

Stephen Schreiman, president of the Maryland Minutemen, said his group is a “neighborhood watch” and the legal observers are trying to harass his members.

He also said CASA officials who photographed his group a few weeks ago were “polite but very intrusive” and “in our faces” nearly to the point of assault.

“They’re trying to intimidate us, I believe,” he said. But “I don’t have a problem with them taking my picture. If they feel good about it, they’re free to do that. We’re not doing anything wrong [and] we’ve never taken the law into our hands. We’ve only observed and reported and that’s the definition of a neighborhood watch.”

CASA officials distributed ACLU fliers describing the history of the Minutemen and outlining the role of legal observers. They said the ACLU will not provide legal representation for observers who become liable for their involvement in confrontations.

Andrew Kleine, a member of CASA’s board of directors, said CASA will not dispense observers to its centers unless the Minutemen “become a larger presence and more disruptive at the day laborer centers.”

The group also is considering forming other groups that would picket the homes and businesses of Minutemen members, or would sing songs and hold signs supporting the laborers as they wait for work in the mornings.

CASA also is encouraging people to voice their opposition by hiring day laborers and writing letters of support to the Montgomery County Council.

Mr. Smitson said the Minutemen have been peaceful and cooperative with CASA and police. They even contacted officers before monitoring the Wheaton site, he said.

“The Minutemen have really toned down their vigilante label [and] are trying to portray a more community-based neighborhood watch image,” he said. “We don’t expect them to engage in unlawful acts. That is not the image they’re portraying [but] we don’t want to leave the workers feeling unprotected.”

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