Virginia County Cracks Down On Immigration

The Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia, has passed a resolution that makes it harder for illegal immigrants to access county services. John Stirrup, Gainesville District Supervisor for Prince William County, talks about the new policy. The resolution was his idea. Also, Ben Johnson shares his opposition to the enactment.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Later in the program, black enough for who? We're going to talk to three African-American talk show hosts on why Obama's blackness is or isn't an issue.

But first, the ongoing battle over illegal immigration in this country. Yesterday, the Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia - it's a suburb of Washington, D.C. - passed a resolution that attempts to make it harder for illegal immigrants to access county services.

Lawmakers voted unanimously to approve a measure that would allow the police to check the immigration status of anyone in police custody. It also directs county workers to help board members determine which public services can be lawfully denied to illegal immigrants. We're hoping to hear from John Stirrup. He's the Gainesville district supervisor on the Prince William county board. The resolution was his idea.

But first, we're joined by Ben Johnson. He is the executive director for the American Immigration Law Foundation. His group offered testimony against the bill.

Mr. Johnson, thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. BEN JOHNSON (Executive Director, American Immigration Law Foundation): I'm glad to be here.

MARTIN: What do you say to residents who argue that they're tired of paying for services for people who are here illegally? Clearly, Prince William County isn't the only place that is moving in this direction. So clearly, there is some national sentiment here that's being - that is reflected in these resolutions. So what do you say to people who feel that way?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I think the first challenge is to sort out perception from reality. I mean, I know there's a popular perception that undocumented immigrants are draining our coffers or somehow coming here for public services that they're not paying for.

But when you take a closer look at that, you find two important facts: and that is, first of all, undocumented immigrants are ineligible for almost all public benefits in the United States already, with the exception of emergency medical care, and maybe in other smaller programs that make the decision not to ask about immigration status.

And second of all, immigrants, both undocumented and legal immigrants, are far less likely to be requesting any kind of public benefit in the United States than even the native born. So what's happened in those local communities that have attempted this kind of approach to really crackdown on what they perceive as undocumented immigrants draining their coffers. What - but we found, for instance, in Colorado, is that there was almost no savings as a result of this. In fact, the laws were much more expensive to enforce than any savings that resulted from it, because this really is a perception that doesn't fit with reality.

MARTIN: But the fact is that there are services that - you're saying that the amount that immigrants pay, whether they're legal or illegal, in services probably does cover the services that they're demanding from - or demanding - or that they are using from governments. But what about the fact that they are not here legally, and that there are those who would just argue that it gives the lie to respect for law? Just by definition, it creates an environment where the law is being flouted on an ongoing basis, and that that creates a cultural problem, a philosophical problem - do you see my point? What do you say to that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, I imagine that's an incredibly important point. And we ought to do and focus our attention on the things that we can to deal with that problem. But this isn't going to solve that problem of undocumented status. I don't think anybody believes that undocumented workers that are drawn to the United States are not going to come here because Prince William's passed this particular ordinance. That's just not the reason that they come. They come because there are jobs here and that the legal channels of immigration do not fit with the economic realities that we have here today.

So if you want to solve the problem of undocumented immigration, you need to assess what are our needs - both in local communities like Prince William and nationally - what are our needs from the immigrations system, and provide legal - ways for those workers to get here. Until we do that, you're just putting a band-aid on a problem, and you're not really solving it.

MARTIN: Mr. Johnson, I'm going to ask you to hold on for a minute. I'd like to bring in John Stirrup. He is the Gainesville district supervisor on the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. He's a sponsor of the resolution which passed the board last night.

Mr. Stirrup, how are you?

Mr. JOHN STIRRUP (Gainesville District Supervisor, Prince William County Board of Supervisors): I'm just fine. Good morning.

MARTIN: Good morning. Thanks for speaking with us.

Mr. STIRRUP: I'm delighted to be here.

MARTIN: I think you've been listening to our conversation. You heard Mr. Johnson say this is just a band-aid. But - and I understand that your original proposal was more far reaching, that it would allow the police to check the immigration status of anyone who violated the law, misdemeanor or not. And it also attempts to go further in denying services to illegal immigrants. What's your vision? Is it your vision that if the county were made inhospitable enough that those who are there illegally will just leave?

Mr. STIRRUP: Well, you raised a couple of great points. Let me address first about the band-aid. I think the better analogy might be that this is the tip of the iceberg. I think - I heard in conversation earlier that we were an isolated case. I don't think that's the case, whatsoever. I think you're going to see and you've already seen other local jurisdictions move on some very similar legislation, ordinances, laws locally. You've seen states enact legislations - just recently, Oklahoma, Georgia is moving in the same direction.

So rather than a band-aid, I would characterize this more as the tip of the iceberg and the beginning of a trend. I think you're going to be seeing this locally, across the country. And fundamentally, the reason is twofold. It's a failure of the federal government to control our borders and the outcry from our citizens, our legal citizens, to say do something, address this problem. They will no longer accept our hands are tied, or we cannot do anything about this problem as an answer.

MARTIN: Well, I think you're assessment is correct, that there are jurisdictions around the country who are attempting this and they say, as you do, that this is in the absence of a national push here. But what do you say to those who argue that legal or illegal - illegal immigrants, like legal immigrants, do pay taxes. Some of them own a property. They certainly pay sales taxes. Many of them do play - pay employment taxes. And many of them have children here who were born here and are citizens, and that they have a right use these services.

Mr. STIRRUP: Well, I think, many of those are really baseless arguments. You have to set the standard here. Fundamentally, what we're talking about is people who are in the United States illegally. And it is a violation of federal law to enter the United States illegally or to be domiciled here illegally. And if you just - that the whole portrait of this argument changes when you accept that as the premise. All these other hypotheticals and situations are really ancillary and are meant to distract you from the real argument here, that these people, being in the United States illegally are, in fact, criminals.

MARTIN: But they're not ancillary to the people who are living it, particularly people who are parents of children who are citizens. So I guess I'd go back to my original question. Is it your vision that people will just leave, that they'll, in essence, self-deport?

Mr. STIRRUP: Well, again, human nature's a difficult thing to gauge. But I do believe that this does send a strong message to those who promote and profit from illegal immigration that Prince William County is no longer friendly terrain. This is probably a place we do not want to send our, quote, unquote, "our clients" anymore to take advantage of the public services there and the system and the, obviously, what they perceived as a friendly atmosphere. And I think that the welcome sign or the welcome mat has been pulled in for future illegal aliens to move to the county. Those existing in the county now, currently, they - some may choose to leave to go to other jurisdictions, other localities. It's difficult to determine.

MARTIN: What do you say to those who argue that this is racist? That this opens the door to racial profiling? That persons who are just brown, or who happen not to be of the dominant ethnic group will now be singled out for additional scrutiny whether they're citizens or not?

Mr. STIRRUP: Well, I think, the argument is really baseless. I think - we've heard that. We've been called racist. We've been called xenophobes. We've been called everything. But in reality, the illegal immigration problem in our county and nationwide is not limited to Latinos or Hispanics or people from South America. We have a heavy problem with the illegal immigration from Caribbean nations, Asian nations, African nations. It's across the board.

MARTIN: But - I'm sorry, but you haven't mentioned Ireland or Europe or…

Mr. STIRRUP: We have - we do actually…

MARTIN: …Eastern Europe, the Balkans.

Mr. STIRRUP: …we do have a problem with Western Europe as well.

MARTIN: Okay. But my point is how do you assure legal residents or citizens who are of color that they will then not be targeted with this broad-brush? How do you assure them of that?

Mr. STIRRUP: Well, our resolution does not target any group whatsoever. And I don't believe legally, it could. It gives the discretion to the police for probable cause, for example. And it also encourages or asks that all county employees, when an individual applies for county services, that they have to address a question of their immigration status. That is going to be enforced across the board.

MARTIN: Including you? If you go to the library, do we have to - you have to show your passport?

Mr. STIRRUP: Absolutely. Absolutely.

MARTIN: All right. Mr. Stirrup…

Mr. STIRRUP: Absolutely.

MARTIN: …now you've asked county employees to report back to you in 60 days on this. Perhaps, you'll come back and talk to us as this…

Mr. STIRRUP: Oh, I'll be happy to.

MARTIN: …issue moves further down the road. I thank you so much for speaking with us.

Mr. STIRRUP: It was my pleasure. Thank you.

MARTIN: That's John Stirrup. He is the Gainesville District supervisor on the Prince William County Board. He's the author of the resolution that attempts to deny services to illegal immigrants.

Mr. Johnson, if we could go back to you. You heard Mr. Stirrup, and what I heard him say is that there's just overwhelming frustration on the part of county residents of feeling that they are getting a raw deal, and that this is one manifestation of that. How would you address that sentiment? This is clearly not the only jurisdiction of the country that is experimenting with these kinds of resolutions. What do you - how would you address that?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, of course there's frustration, but leadership is about responding to that frustration in an effective way. Doing something as a way to appease frustration is as important as doing something that's effective to appease that frustration. So I guess my question, you know, for the supervisor is what are the costs that they think they're going to cut by implementing these programs?

Exactly where do they think money is being improperly spent for these services for undocumented immigrants? I mean, you raised the issue of library books. Do we really think that undocumented immigrants are taking library books out and not returning them on time? I mean, what are costs that they're going after? And once you've identified these perceived costs, you know, is there any evidence to suggest that undocumented immigrants are, in fact, draining those coffers…

MARTIN: What if the facts don't matter?

Mr. JOHNSON: …is the best way to go about it?

MARTIN: Mr. Johnson, what if the facts don't matter? Because you and other groups have been submitting testimony along these lines, talking about the economic impact of immigration all year long, and it doesn't seem to matter. What if the facts don't matter?

Mr. JOHNSON: Well, if the facts don't matter then this is nothing more than a political football. And then I think it's up to the leaders here to admit that this is just a political game, and this really isn't about the facts. I am - but more importantly, I'm not satisfied that we should be happy with that result. The facts should matter. I think the public is entitled for our leaders to act based on the facts and to respond in ways that are effective. I mean, another question I have is why this…

MARTIN: Quickly please.

Mr. JOHNSON: …why this issue? I mean, taxes - we have, every year, hundreds of million dollars in unpaid taxes every year. Why isn't Prince William County asking its local service providers, its local police officers to find out whether somebody's paid their taxes or not?

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. JOHNSON: I mean, there's a whole set of laws that are out that…

MARTIN: Okay.

Mr. JOHNSON: …can be more effectively enforced. Why this one?

MARTIN: Okay. All right. Mr. Johnson, we're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much for speaking with us. That was Ben Johnson. He's the executive director of the American Immigration Law Foundation. He joined us on the phone. Thanks again.

(Soundbite of music)

MARTIN: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

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