Story URL: http://news.medill.northwestern.edu/washington/news.aspx?id=93891
Story Retrieval Date: 5/22/2013 8:15:42 AM CST
Chairman Corey Stewart outlined three issues the resolution could improve: overcrowded schools, crime and emergency room wait times.
REASON #1: OVERCROWDED SCHOOLS
Almost 800 students have left the school system since the beginning of the school year. However, the schools are still experiencing growth; it’s just at a slower pace than predicted.
REASON #2: CRIME
Many county residents worried about the increase in MS-13 gang presence in the past year especially after two illegal immigrants were involved in high profile crimes. One of the men was arrested on other charges and released, the illegal status having gone unchecked. He later murdered a county resident. A death, that Stewart said could have been avoided.
REASON #3: ER WAIT TIMES
The resolution’s timing could be coincidental with a new triage system that cuts down on the wait time in emergency rooms. “Our volumes in the ER have not changed,” a spokeswoman for the Prince William Health System said.
MANASSAS, VA. — It’s been less than a year since the Washington suburb of Prince William County, Virginia attracted national attention by empowering local police to be the new front line of immigration enforcement.
Suddenly, for the first time, police got the authority to ask anyone pulled over for a traffic violation about their citizenship status. No matter how minor the offense, a broken tail light or failing to turn on the signal, it was reason enough for cops to ask for proof of legal status. Any illegal immigrants caught were referred to federal authorities for deportation.
In the words of Prince William County Police Chief Charles T. Deane, “This new policy has changed the perception of what police do. ….A sobriety checkpoint today can look to some to be an immigration road block,” he said. “Officers have a new responsibility in the history of our country.”
Yolanda Lemus, a U.S. citizen originally from El Salvador who volunteers with the advocacy group Mexicans without Borders, said just from driving around she and her boyfriend have noticed the dramatic change in the atmosphere.
“We don’t see the Spanish, the Latinos, the way we used to, everywhere, every time, anymore. Going to the malls, going to the parks. It’s like, ‘Where’s everybody at?’” she said.
While there are no definitive studies to answer that question, most observers believe that many immigrants of Hispanic origin got scared, packed and left.
It wasn’t that the police stopped that many people. Since March, 265 were questioned about their status and 138 of them were arrested, according to county data. Sixty-six were released without charges and 59 were cited for minor offenses. Two were found to be legal residents.
Rather, the fear alone of either deportation among illegals or of harassment among illegals, seems to have done the job.
The move by the County’s Board of Supervisors—and enforcement by police—transformed ordinary errands—trips to the store or post office—into anxiety-ridden journeys for immigrants, legal as well as illegal.
Now, this fast-growing county of 380,000, once famous for two of the Civil War’s deadliest battles at Manassas, is in the national spotlight for a newer conflict, the national battle over immigration.
While supporters of the crackdown believe the impact has been positive—less crowding in overburdened schools, no more clusters of day laborers at shopping centers, others worry about emptying businesses once patronized by immigrants and of the negative attention, a county tarnished by portrayals—fairly or unfairly—as a symbol of small-minded bigotry.
What’s happened in Prince William County, just a few dozen miles from the U.S. Capitol itself, is now happening in jurisdictions across the country.
Last June, when Congress failed to overhaul the existing immigration laws with a comprehensive bill, they effectively tossed the ball to the states and counties most affected by the presence of an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
The boom in the Washington region's population in the past few decades, transformed little known suburban communities such as Prince William and Loudoun counties from rural islands to vast suburbs, lined with shopping centers, million dollar homes and gridlocked with traffic.
Growth and affluence made the entire Washington region a magnet for immigrants – legal and illegal—making the region with the seventh largest immigrant population in the nation.
Prince William County experienced explosive economic and population growth for the better part of this decade, attracting thousands of construction workers and day laborers to help expand the community. The county had the fourth largest Hispanic growth rate in the country from 2000 to 2006 and grew by almost 150 percent, according the U.S. Census Bureau.
The phenomena turned Hispanics into the major ethnic group in the county. The Hispanic population grew by 183 percent from 1990 to 2000 and by 2007 was roughly 19 percent of the county population. The white population grew by 7.7 percent.
Overcrowding was an unavoidable consequence of the exponential growth the county experienced. The county welcomed more than 75,000 new residents since 2000. And in the span of fifty years, the population increased seven-fold, from 50,000 to more than 380,000. The demographic stress started to push resources and services and local politicians to the brink.
Board members requested a study in late 2006 to estimate how much the illegal immigrant community was costing the county government. A $3 million estimate was thrown out.
Chairman-At-Large Corey Stewart of the County Board of Supervisors, who took office in November 2006 after campaigning on the immigration issue, took the lead on addressing the issue. Stewart, a lawyer by training, argued that because illegal immigration had become a problem in a non-border state, it was reason enough to take strong steps.
In order to combat the growing illegal immigration problem in the county, the Prince William Board of County Supervisors passed the “Rule of Law Resolution” in July 2007 denying certain social services to illegal immigrants and implementing the 287 (g) program in the jail system.
Named for a chapter of the U.S. immigration law that permits federal immigration authorities to partner with local authorities, this allowed detention workers to question criminals about their status and report to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, with individuals who could be deported. In October 2007, the same 287 (g) agreement was extended to the police department, which went into effect on March 3, 2008, launching the police department into unchartered territory.
While the policies have been modified and softened, in part to avoid lawsuits, the basic thrust is intact.
The entire community has been bearing the cost—or benefits, depending on one’s point of view. Some businesses say they are suffering because of fewer customers and a smaller pool of employees. The school system has fewer students studying English as a Second Language. Politically, the crackdown divided Prince William County into warring camps. County officials and residents alike are balking at unforeseen expenses – such as the $3 million needed for video cameras in police cars to defend against racial profiling charges.
While many Hispanics, legal and illegal have migrated to adjacent counties, the mood in Prince William has shifted. Residential blocks have emptied out, businesses have fewer immigrant customers and schools have lost students. Meanwhile, the crackdown has created a backlog of detainees with ICE, who has been unable to keep pace with the more than 700 names they have received from the county.
The Route 1 corridor, a frayed but major artery through the county houses countless mainstream businesses along with Mexican restaurants and El Salvadorian grocery stories. Since the crackdown however, businesses in the once thriving commercial center, have suffered significant revenue losses.
Doug Madison, the owner of Mailbox Junction and a Stewart supporter, said he believed the immigration issue was just that: an immigration issue. But a whopping 40 percent loss after the first month of the crackdown left Madison with faltering support for the county leadership and scrambling for ways to compensate.
The Prince William public school system, which continues to grow despite the crackdown, is the third largest school system in Virginia and Hispanic students are the largest minority.
Between September and March, 759 students have left, 623 of them students enrolled in English as a Second Language (ESOL.) Stewart said the schools will save about $6 million as students leave because the additional $2,864 needed to educate an ESOL student also disappears.
Not coincidentally, neighboring Fairfax County reported a proportional increase in enrollment in its ESOL programs.
The community remains split on the county’s new immigration policies.
In a recent town meeting, residents filled the dimly lit board chambers to capacity, spilling over into an atrium where they watched on flat screen television. Residents listened in tense quiet while some slammed the resolution because it had divided the county with racism and others applauded the resolution for making the community safer.
Not surprisingly, Hispanics weren’t around to describe how the resolution was affecting their daily commutes, their children in school or their trips to the grocery stores. Instead, within the span of a few months, the new majority had been driven into their homes or out of the county by fear.
Nancy Lyall a volunteer with the advocacy group Mexicans without Borders said a tremendous amount of fear has penetrated the community.
“Race relations have deteriorated drastically here,” Lyall said. “People are no longer going about business as usual, they’re afraid really to go out of their homes. Many people have stopped driving.”
Lyall pointed to the long waits in the legal process to gain entry into the U.S. – something the immigration bill would have fixed.
“If your children are hungry you can’t wait thirteen years to feed them,” she said referring to the lengthy process.
“What it is doing is it’s targeting the people who forget to turn their signal on when they make a right hand turn or the people who jay walk,” said Lyall with Mexicans without Borders said.
Many long time Prince William residents, like Terry Danner, are frustrated by the overcrowding in their neighborhoods, said the solution does not lie in cracking down on illegal immigrants. Danner also said the crackdown unfairly targets a single ethnic group.
“I find that action to be morally indefensible, politically motivated, and economically irresponsible,” said Danner, a twenty-three year county resident.
Yolanda Lemus, who moved from South Florida several years ago, said the new stigma makes her want to leave. “I hate being affiliated with Prince William County,” she said.
Because Lemus’ babysitter does not have legal status she is moving to Sterling, a county that sits 25 miles from Prince William.
“She’s a prisoner in her own home. She will not leave the house. It’s close the curtains, close the blinds, don’t answer the phone, don’t answer the door kind of thing because it’s just terrifying,” Lemus said.
Lemus’ boyfriend, however, is considering moving hundreds of miles south.
“His going to Texas is a huge impact on us – on me and my daughter, you know. She’s call him daddy,” Lemus said.
While the changing demographics of Prince William County have disrupted the status quo, still others stand somewhere in the gray area and continue to argue that the movers and shakers inside the Beltway should establish some sort of legal path for illegal immigrants to rectify their status.
The League of Women Voters’ chapter in Prince William County believes this would be a more appropriate measure, “rather than the current emphasis of some on the Board on punishing immigrants and driving them out of the county,” said League co-president Sheila School.
“We embrace the wonderful diversity of our county and feel that all who are here legally should be welcome. We are willing to pay the price. Legal is legal. And Illegal is illegal.” said 40-year-resident Eileen Thrall.
Greg Letiecq, is president of Help Save Manassas, an organization that seeks to reduce the number of illegal aliens residing in the county. “All we want to do is make sure that if you’re coming here, do it the legal way. And if you’ve done it the wrong way, go home,” he said.
Stewart, chairman of the Board of Supervisors, said the legal immigrants in the community that followed procedures and waited to come to the U.S. strongly support the crackdown because they feel they were responsible in their actions.
“In many cases they have waited years if not decades to come into the United States legally, only to be undercut by other people,” he said.