Virginia County to Vote on Illegal Immigration Rules

This summer, the board of supervisors of Virginia's Prince William County approved a crackdown aimed at driving out illegal immigrants. Officials have recommendations of which county services to deny to the undocumented. The plan, which will be voted on next week, also includes more police questioning. Hispanics say the move has divided the community, and will backfire.

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Now, a visit to a community that is taking a different approach in its crackdown on illegal immigrants. Across the country, a handful of cities and towns have targeted landlords or employers. But Prince William County in Northern Virginia is working out a plan to deny county services to illegal immigrants and to step up police checks.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden has the story.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: No one pushed harder for the new measures than Greg Letiecq.

Mr. GREG LETIECQ (President, Help Save Manassas): Okay. Let's hop in. Go for the adventure.

(Soundbite of car starting up)

LUDDEN: He leads a tour through pleasant middle-income neighborhoods. Streets lined with clabbered colonials and well-kept lawns. But as Northern Virginia has boomed in recent years, Letiecq says these areas have filled with too many Hispanics who just aren't integrating. He shakes his head at a towering patch of sunflowers in one front yard and catalogues annoyances.

Mr. LETIECQ: It's 3 o'clock in the afternoon and there's no parking. How in the world does that happen?

LUDDEN: Letiecq has founded Help Save Manassas, named for the county's biggest city. The group has badgered officials about overcrowded houses, zoning violations, and violent Salvadoran gangs.

Mr. LETIECQ: Right at this corner here, a girl got raped by a bunch of guys who are MS-13 gang members. This house is vacant right here and they broke into it and started hanging out in there.

LUDDEN: Letiecq pulls further up the street into a quiet cul-de-sac and calls on one of his group's members.

(Soundbite of car door shutting)

LUDDEN: Amy Galloway(ph) is 71, African-American, still working as a house cleaner. She stands on her front steps and describes how she's come to feel alienated on her own street.

Ms. AMY GALLOWAY (Member, Help Save Manassas): This house in front, 104, we don't know who they are, whether they're Spanish, from Chile or whatever. They're there. We've seen at least four families move out of that house since the owner sold. And over here, it was numerous amounts of men lived there. They have parties. They don't bother us. But they are over there. We don't know who they are. And so it becomes scary.

Unidentified Man #1: Chairman…

Unidentified Man #2: Mr. Nelly(ph).

Unidentified Man #1: Just to be clear, though, citizens…

LUDDEN: At a tense board of supervisors meeting this summer, dozens of residents accused illegal immigrants of ruining their quality of life and sucking up public resources. They lamented declining property values, the cost of school ESL classes, long waits in emergency rooms. Dozens of others, including plenty of native-born whites, condemned that the crackdown is misguided and said it made them ashamed. The supervisors, all facing re-election this fall, voiced barely a word of debate.

Unidentified Man #3: Please vote. Vote unanimous. Thank you very much.

(Soundbite of applause)

LUDDEN: Three months later, officials have drawn up plans to carry out the resolution. By law, they can't deny the most expensive services - public education and emergency health care. By law also, despite widespread misperceptions at the public hearing, illegal immigrants are already denied things like welfare. Then some things the county could start restricting, just aren't practical.

Board Chairman Corey Stewart.

Mr. COREY STEWART (Board Chairman, Prince William Board of County Supervisors): It just would not be cost effective to deny library services. It wouldn't be cost effective to deny most park services. We would have to train our, you know, our lifeguards on immigration law, and we're just not going to do that. It doesn't make any sense.

LUDDEN: But the county executive has come up with recommendations like these - restricting halfway housing for the homeless, in-home care for the elderly, a substance abuse program at the county jail. Small apples for sure, but Stewart says there's a bigger aim.

Mr. STEWART: By deterring illegal immigrants who - from coming to the county in the first place, encouraging the illegal immigrants who are already here to leave, and that's ultimately what's going to be saving the county money.

LUDDEN: A lot of that deterrent effect will come from the other part of Prince William County's crackdown, stepped-up police checks.

Chief Charlie Deane's officers will now have a mandate to ask about legal status when they stop someone for just about anything, provided there is probable cause.

Mr. CHARLIE DEANE (Police Chief, Prince William County): If officers were, for example, will working radar and then pull someone over for speeding, and when presented with a fraudulent driver's license, and they obviously forged one, one that they determined was questionable.

LUDDEN: But Chief Deane is the first to point out the vast majority of undocumented immigrants don't commit crimes.

Mr. DEANE: What we wind up with, I think - I'm very concerned about the fact that our community expects us to be able to have a much larger impact and do much more than we can do by law. We're not going to do roundups and we're not going to be dealing with day labor centers.

LUDDEN: Deane's officers also won't ask the legal status of crime victims or witnesses. He says it's already hard enough getting immigrant communities to report crimes.

Mr. DEANE: If we're going to do these things we need to them right. And if we don't get it right, we can do more harm than good.

(Soundbite of whistling and honking)

LUDDEN: Honks of support for a couple dozen Latinos protesting the new law on a grassy strip outside a shopping mall. Not all driving by are impressed.

Unidentified Man #4: I had to learn English. Every time I go to the store it says English or Spanish. I'd pick English.

Unidentified Man #5: (Speaking foreign language).

Unidentified Man #4: You have to learn English. Everybody learn English.

LUDDEN: Protestor Maria Escobar(ph) is a U.S. citizen and owns a cleaning service. She says when she came here from El Salvador 26 years ago, this county was poor.

Ms. MARIA ESCOBAR (Business Owner): Now, it's really rich. If you can see all construction, all new houses, it's beautiful places. Who build them? Spanish people build them.

(Soundbite of protestors chanting)

LUDDEN: We are here, they chant, and we're not leaving. But since the resolution passed, some immigrants in Prince William County are leaving or lying low.

I meet Jose(ph) in a strip mall parking lot. He didn't want to use his real name and he wanted to be far from prying neighbors who all believe he's legal.

JOSE: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: I feel terrified, he says. I'm afraid of going out to restaurants or any public place. Jose says he knows one family that's left the county. And in this, he echoes numerous others who tell of friends and neighbors gone. But Jose has been here the better part of two decades. He has three U.S.-born children, a good job, and owns his house.

JOSE: (Speaking foreign language)

LUDDEN: We've thought of leaving, but it's so difficult, he says. And then I wonder what if I go somewhere else and they pass a law like this, too. I will have lost everything for nothing.

Jose could have a point.

Greg Letiecq, the activist behind the anti-illegal immigrant movement here in Prince William, says he's been flooded with calls and e-mails. He's now traveling around Virginia, telling people in other towns how they can copy what he's done.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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