COLUMBIA, SC — The owner of a restaurant selling T-shirts comparing catching illegal immigrants to capturing animals has seen a spike in business since the controversy made national headlines last week.
The T-shirts being sold at the Taco Cid restaurant in West Columbia feature a box propped open with a stick and string as a rudimentary trap baited with two tacos. The shirts read How to Catch an Illegal Immigrant in red, green and white the colors of the Mexican flag.
Leanne Snelgrove, 29, said the restaurant has sold about 400 of the T-shirts each with a $37.95 price tag since they went on display in November. Most of the sales were made through the restaurants website since news of the story hit the Huffington Post, CBS News and The New York Times last week.
Snelgrove who defends the T-shirts as a political statement and denies they are racist said the restaurant has sold shirts to customers in just about every state in the nation, and even received an order from a soldier in Kosovo.
And we sold a lot to border patrol agents in Texas, she said. Its a crazy thing. This is crazy.
The T-shirts went national after a high-school teacher snapped a picture on New Years Day of the restaurants staff wearing the shirts. The photo then made it into a story by Columbias alternative weekly Free Times.
The shirts have raised as much ire as they have cash.
Protesters began showing up last Friday, decrying the shirts as degrading and racist, and are using them as a platform in the ongoing discussion over immigration reform.
Brett Bursey, director of the SC Progressive Network, met 14 immigration-reform advocates from Florida last week as they traveled through South Carolina. They were on their way to Washington to meet with U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham.
They had heard about the Taco Cid shirt and thought it was, well, rude, as well as racist, Bursey said.
So Bursey and the group protested later that day in front of the store at 1416 Charleston Highway, joined by about 20 local activists, he said.
Since then, protesters have been gathering in small numbers each evening about 6 p.m., Snelgrove said.
They all jump out of their cars when TV cameras show up, she said.
Snelgrove said she saw the T-shirt in April while visiting Key West, Fla. When she took over ownership of the restaurant from her mother, Cindy Oswald, in November, she decided to have some of the T-shirts printed up locally with her logo on the front. It was a political statement, she said, more than a money-making venture.
I dont see how people think it is racist, she said. It says illegal immigrants and not legal immigrants.
In response to the protests, Snelgrove wrote on the restaurants website:
As most taxpaying Americans, we do believe illegal immigrants are taxing the system we support and live under, thereby, causing us to work harder and pay more taxes in support of their illegal activities which our government has simply chosen to look the other way. Is it racist to disagree with those who are not supporting the American system?
The message has some resonance. Snelgrove said the restaurant was packed for lunch when the news broke nationally last week.
They were lined up out the door, she said, with a notable presence by the military and law enforcement community. So were having a special for law enforcement and military on Friday. Free iced tea.
She also said the publicity has helped because the other stores in the once-regional franchise closed a few years ago. People used to think we were closed, said Snelgrove, who has worked at the restaurant since she was 15.
One of Snelgroves new customers is Don Sell, who works down the street from the restaurant.
The mechanic with the U.S. Postal Service on Tuesday was having a No. 7 (meat burrito, tacos, cheese enchilada, refried beans and Spanish rice with a Cid-pie a deep-fried fruit pie for $8.19) for lunch. The Arizona native said he started coming in when he heard about the controversy.
I think illegal immigration is out of control, he said, and the federal government doesnt have the cojones to do anything about it. The ladys right.
Sell said he thought the backlash over the shirt was hilarious. Its a Mexican restaurant. Tacos should be on the T-shirt.
One person who isnt laughing is Ivan Segura. His organization, the Council of Mexicans in the Carolinas, has condemned the shirts as racist. But the organization isnt protesting on the street.
There is nothing funny about being deported, he said. There is nothing funny about being racially profiled. There is nothing funny about comparing people to animals that can be trapped. How can they say that is not degrading and racist?
But, he added, his organization is trying to turn the discussion about the shirts into a meaningful dialogue.
Its giving them free publicity, and shame on them for being happy about that. And shame on the people who are wearing them to make a political statement. But we are missing the big picture.
We dont care about them selling T-shirts; its freedom of speech, Segura said.
But we are hoping that this racist T-shirt will motivate people to come out in support of immigration reform. We want to channel all this energy in the right direction.