Virginia County's Immigration Crackdown Stalls

Officials in Prince William County passed a controversial resolution earlier this year to crack down on illegal immigrants. But county officials have delayed the plan — which aims to deny civil services to illegal immigrants and increase police checks — because of a lack of funding. Prince William County Executive Craig Gerhart explains the latest developments.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Later on the program, she's one of the biggest names in show business and a trailblazer for other Latino actresses - a candid conversation with Rita Moreno. That's later.

But first, the ongoing battle over illegal immigration. Earlier this year, officials in Prince William County, Virginia received national attention for their plan to deny certain public services to illegal immigrants and to require police to step up checks of immigration status.

Yesterday, officials approved those plans and theory, but decided not to enforce them after learning of an unexpected roadblock - it's estimated $14.2 million cost, just for the additional policing.

Later, we'll hear from another county official who is critical of the plan. But now we turn to county executive Craig Gerhart. He presented the plan at yesterday's board meeting and he's with us on the phone from his office. Welcome, thanks for joining us.

Mr. CRAIG GERHART (Deputy County Executive, Prince William, Virginia): Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: You were kind enough to join us in July when the county was first considering this plan. So if you would just bring people today who didn't hear that conversation, what made Prince William officials consider this to begin with?

Mr. GERHART: There was quite a bit of public comment offer to the board at Citizens' Time, which is a portion at the beginning both of the afternoon and an evening sessions of our board meetings. Neighborhood overcrowdings, housing, single-family homes appearing to be home to multiple groups of people, a lot of issues with respect to the impact on neighborhood as far as, as property code standards, parking, number of vehicles, location of vehicles, yards, that's where…

MARTIN: So that's just a myriad of complaints.

Mr. GERHART: And sort of some economic issues as some of the community's business folks, contractors, expressed their concern that they weren't able to compete as fully licensed businesses with businesses that were making use of labor that, frankly, was more inexpensive because it didn't have some of the things like taxes and health insurance, et cetera, attached to them.

MARTIN: So you've been directed county employees to analyze which services can legally be denied illegal immigrants, because I think it's important to establish that some things cannot be - emergency health services…

Mr. GERHART: Well, first of all, let me be clear here. The board directed me. In Virginia, the county executive is an appointed position that serves at the pleasure of the board of supervisors. And it was the board's resolution that directed that examination of county services.

MARTIN: And that report was presented to the county yesterday? And I think one of the more controversial aspects of the proposal was to require county police to check the immigration status of people who are in custody. Correct?

Mr. GERHART: Correct. I do need to point out that we actually have two reports that are now out with the board of supervisors. They were reports that that was the issue of the police department entering into a relationship with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency, affectionately known as ICE.

And the report that therefore has the $14 million over a five-year price tag was a report that was presented to the board back in mid September. And that is the report that outlined the proposed general order for the police department that would have officers, when confronted with probable cause of someone's illegal status, would cause that officer to investigate that and potentially take action because of the immigration status.

The report we gave the board yesterday was the second part of the board's direction and that was the in-houses of county services, both in terms of those services that federal or state law says we have to restrict illegal residents or we may not restrict based on residents status, as well as a review of the entire gamut of county services that has local for which the board would have local discretion to determine the service population.

MARTIN: I guess the bottom line is that a part of the motivation for this policy is to save money. It turns out that it cost money to implement these new policies. Was that a surprise?

Mr. GERHART: I think we always believe that the staff level that if we were going to have more involvement through the police department with ICE and more involvement with enforcement of immigration laws, then that was going to require additional staff.

The reason for that really is very straightforward. Heretofore, our relationships as a community with ICE had been through or adult detention center. What that meant is folks who were in the adult detention center for having committed a crime, then also got processed with respect to immigration. They were already in our system and we had the correctional officers, as many jurisdictions have, trained to work with ICE - as agents of ICE to deal with folks who were already in our jail.

When we expand that program into the street police patrol officers, then we are seeing - we are potentially having a traffic violation, which normally might take, say, 15 or 20 minutes to clear, now turn into - with probable cause and with immigration status issues - turned into two, three, four or five-hour process.

And because of that, and it was pretty clear to us that we would need additional police staff in order to take care of that responsibility.

MARTIN: Would you also need additional legal staff because one of the objections that's been raised with the policies that many advocates with this would open the door to racial profiling because the argument that what is probable cause for an immigration check is something that a lot of people disagree about. So is part of it also legal staff to defend the county against lawsuits?

Mr. GERHART: We've been pretty clear that we expect there will be some legal action that we'll have to deal with - slip(ph) lawsuits. As to the costs of those - we have not included any of those costs in the estimates we provided to the board in the $14 million. But we'd not been at all reticent to point that those costs were likely to occur.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm speaking with Craig Gerhart, county executive for Prince William County, Virginia, which is considering steps to deny public services to illegal immigrants. What was the reaction of the public and of the supervisors when the reality is of the costs in implementing this policy became clear? How are people responding to this information?

Mr. GERHART: Those who are very supportive of the proposal are saying that they are willing to pay for this. That in their estimation, this is money that represents a sound investment in the community and to the extent, some of the longer term impacts of illegal immigration, as they see them, are mitigated and over the long term it would save money.

Those who are in opposition to the measures point pretty quickly to other uses that $14 million could be put to in the area of education and public safety, et cetera, et cetera. From the board's perspective, I think, the decision that the board made yesterday is that before they allocate any funding for the implementation of the police portion of this effort, they want to sit down with staff and go through a fairly detailed discussion of what the county's physical situation is for the upcoming budgets' year. Not unlike many communities, we are experiencing a downturn in our real-estate market for local government, which is still predominantly dependent on the real estate tax revenue, that clearly is an issue that's going to require some attention.

And I think what the board said yesterday was: let's have that discussion at least in some depth before we move forward to allocate any money for the immigration issue.

MARTIN: As you mentioned that the police at issue isn't the only area of service where a change in policy was being discussed. The county has also identified some other services that they can deny illegal immigrants, including certain housing services. Are those equally controversial? I can argue - you can make an argument if you're talking about deteriorated quality of life that having more people unable to stay in housing. You know, I could see where that equally become…

Mr. GERHART: Sure.

MARTIN: …fodder for…

Mr. GERHART: Sure.

MARTIN: …for discussion.

Mr. GERHART: We are, like all other localities in the country, restricting far more services than I think we had first realized. Many of the social services, temporary aid to needy families, food stamps, Medicaid, Medicare, are, by federal law, not available to folks who cannot demonstrate legal resident status. We are already…

MARTIN: Forgive me, Craig, I just wanted to ask, was this a surprise to be - to discover that?

Mr. GERHART: Well, you know, if you had asked us about any individual service, we would have said yes, that's one that's restricted. We screen for status, and eligibility rule say that if you're not here legally, you can't get that service. What we had never done was to step back and make an entire list of all of those services. When we did that, it became apparent that we and most other communities are already restricting a number of a pretty high profile services. And that was a little bit of an eye-opener.

MARTIN: What's next?

Mr. GERHART: Next Thursday, the board will entertain pretty much an all-day discussion on the fiscal '09 budget year, as well as the five years that begin with fiscal '09. And that is the fiscal discussion that the board wanted to have before they took further action.

MARTIN: So it turns out that this new information - has it really changed anybody's mind about the efficacy of implementing these matters? Is that what I'm hearing you're saying is just provided fodder for both sides, you know, the people who feel that…

Mr. GERHART: No, I think this is an issue for which at the local level we really have precious little hard data. We have anecdotal data. We know, for instance, the percentage of folks in our adult detention center who are illegal immigrants. The detention center is very crowded. And anybody who is in there that wouldn't need to be in there exacerbates the crowding situation. So we have that anecdotal evidence or data.

But we don't have data of the numbers. We don't have data of the impacts. There are studies by other communities about how much local economies are benefited or harmed by illegal immigration. We don't have that at the Prince William level.

So a lot of what people believe and feel about this is based on their personal observation, their personal experience, and how they filter all of that. I'm not sure any of the information that we provided will change community attitudes one way or the other from where they are.

MARTIN: Mm-hmm. That's very interesting. I hope you'll come back and keep us updated.

Mr. GERHART: Thanks for the opportunity.

MARTIN: Craig Gerhart is county executive for Prince William County, Virginia. County officials there are considering plans to deny services to illegal immigrants. Thank you, Mr. Gerhart, for speaking with us.

Mr. GERHART: Take care.

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