EVER SINCE a day-labor hire site opened in June at NE Davis and MLK, one angry man named Tom has frequently kept a protest vigil outside the site, holding a sign reading "NO" and snapping photos of employer's license plates.
Last week, Tom got some company: Oregonians for Immigration Reform (OIR) and a right-wing talk radio host rallied an estimated 30 people bearing grammatically awkward signs saying "Is Illegal." The crowd surrounded the site at 7 am on Tuesday, September 23.
OIR president Jim Ludwick says he hopes the protest keeps illegal immigrants from getting jobs, causing them to "self-deport."
The first large protest of Portland's controversial—and partially publicly funded—day-labor site has put site organizers in a tough place: how to respond to the protests without creating more commotion and tension.
The protest especially upset one of the day laborers. "They're labeling everyone an illegal alien over here just because of the color of their skin, and that's racism. It made me angry because I served this country," explains Army veteran and legal US citizen Israel Martinez, who says he was stationed in Central America during the late '80s and has recently finished treatment for trauma and depression.
As protesters surrounded the site, Martinez grabbed spare cardboard and made his own sign, "Veteran for Hire." Martinez took his place outside the hire site's chain link fence. Anti-site protesters left by 8 am.
While site organizer Justin Shear loved the veteran's impromptu counter-protest, he's unsure of what to do if the protestors came back.
"We don't know if we want to inflame the situation," says Shear, who works for workers' rights organization VOZ. "Whenever there's a spectacle outside, people don't come in." No one entered the site to hire workers during the protest, says Shear, but after the sign-holders left, 23 people were hired.
To figure out a long-term protest strategy, Shear and other site organizers turned to the workers. Under the fluorescent lights of Saint Francis of Assisi Catholic Church's basement dining hall on Saturday afternoon, September 27, 40 day laborers sat in a circle, with Site Director Ignacio Paramo standing in the middle, taking notes.
Workers raised their hands with ideas for counter-protests. "We need to have a peace flag," offered one man, who also suggested that VOZ hire lawyers to figure out the specific rights of illegal immigrants. In the end, the day laborers settled on two messages to use, should the protesters show up again: "We want to support our families, the same as Americans," and "Let us work in peace."