Human Rights Commission Critical of Crackdown

The Human Rights Commission is critical of Prince William County's tough stance on illegal immigration. Chris Labiosa, vice-chairman of the county's Human Rights Commission, discusses his group's most significant concerns with the resolution and their plans to fire back if those concerns are not addressed.

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MICHEL MARTIN, Host:

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

In a few minutes, we'll talk about the Isiah Thomas case. A jury in New York yesterday agreed that the coach of the New York Knicks had sexually harassed a female former team executive. We'll talk with the lawyer who's not only knowledgeable about the issue but played an integral role in another high profile harassment case.

But first, we're going to continue our conversation about one Virginia county's efforts to crack down on illegal immigration by denying such immigrant's public services.

Just a few minutes ago, we spoke with Craig Gerhart, Prince William County executive. And now we're going to turn to Carlos Labiosa. He is the vice chair of the Prince William County Human Rights Commission. The commission criticized the proposed crack down. Mr. Labiosa joins us on the phone from his office. Welcome, sir.

CARLOS LABIOSA: Welcome. Good morning.

MARTIN: Nice to talk to you. What's the commission's biggest concern with this proposal?

LABIOSA: Well, the biggest concern is we have a lot of concerns is not on the basis of criticism. We just want to advise. Prince William County Human Rights Commission is an advisory commission. We advise the county board of supervisors because they implement policy.

Our biggest concern was, if this is not done correctly, the laws could promote division - if it's made a law, it could promote division in our community. We look at the shrinking base, which had already had been brought up by many people. We also thought about that the county could suffer in its reputation.

We have seen that legal and illegal immigrants and citizens as a whole have been divided in this issue. This could divide the community even more. We saw that we could be flirting with discrimination. And what we did is based on the experience of civil rights and human rights legislation and the enforcement of legislation. We saw that a less law enforcement, which has probable cause behind it, when it interviews people, we need to make sure that the interviews are not done on the basis of race, but on the crime that was committed.

MARTIN: Let's talk about - let's take those two issues in turn because you've identified two key issues. One is the matter of public relations and the other is the matter of fairness. First, on the racial profiling question. What about the policy concerns you that it would lead to racial profile? Why do you feel that way?

LABIOSA: Chief Dean(ph) noted in his presentation that a driver's license could not always be considered legal proof of residency. Several of the laws in the legal status as part of the driver's license Virginia changed after 2001. Before that, a lot of people that got driver's license did not have to prove their legal status. We recommended that in order to make sure there's no racial profiling is that Prince William County should consider its own resident document to avoid confusion and to avoid that the - be clear cut who is legal, who is not legal.

MARTIN: What is it your fear that anybody who has a certain physical appearance would or is not wealthy, for example, who perhaps presents himself or herself as not being particularly of means, would be then, a target?

LABIOSA: That's the problem we brought out. I said they could be the target. And in our report, we also talked about history repeats itself. Many times in history, we've had discrimination. And what we did is we said, okay, we presented a set of times, different situations in immigration that cannot be...

MARTIN: Can I - I'm sorry. Can I interrupt you, sir? Because I want to speak about that, because some of the - according the news accounts anyways, some of the civil rights has object to the tone of your report, especially your history references. I want to quote from one paragraph. It says that over the past three months, Prince William County has been fractured in ways not seen since the 1950s.

LABIOSA: Right.

MARTIN: Massive protests, marches, attempted fire bombings, the Klan resurgent, attacks on free speech, and a minority group living in fear, make it seemed more like 1957 than 2007. And according to the reporting, some of the supervisors are saying, you know, give me a break. This is a very different matter. You're talking about enforcing zoning laws. You're talking about - you're not - you know - I think some people say that you - this kind of language damages the image of the county. What do you say to that?

LABIOSA: Well, we don't say - we're not doing this as a criticism, basically. We had monthly meetings, weekly. We met for two months and a half. We had different people to go. The immigrant community, the minority community, felt a sense of confusion. What's going to happen? What's going to happen to me? Will I be stopped in the road and just because I look different? Would I be stopped when I'm walking down the street? Those are the people that will feel that, you know, right now, they had confusion. And that's what we're basically saying.

We - throughout the history of the United States, we've had times of discrimination. We're basically saying look at this. We don't want to commit the same mistake that was committed before. A good example what we - one person put up a sign in their front yard and some Molotov cocktails were thrown at that sign. The Klux Klan came back and distributed literature that was done before. And it happened again. People that were in favor or against started to discuss, well, your point of view is not my point of view so you don't have the right to express it. And we're saying that freedom of speech is very important and everybody should have the right to express their views whichever they are.

MARTIN: Okay. Mr. Labiosa, we just have about a minute left, so I'd like to ask as you know, of course, you live in that county, and as you've heard, this plan is essentially on hold. The civil rights have said that they liked the idea but it's on hold until they can really figure out the cause. What would you like to happen now as the county sort of considers whether to go forward? What would you like to see happen?

LABIOSA: It was one of the things we mentioned in our report. In our report, it was criticized. And we said that's okay. You have the right to criticize it. But one other section in our report, we mentioned this shrinking tax base. And we mentioned to implement these kinds of resolutions. It could cost more than what the benefit would be achieved.

We believe and we agree, we're advising the board of county supervisor, sit down and look at this without emotion. Sit down and look at the cost figures. Sit down on what the real benefits would be. Sit down and look what other things really that the legal immigrants are costing the county. We want it from the very beginning to have facts and figures and numbers before we went ahead and we decided whatever was going to happen.

MARTIN: Okay. All right. We're going to have to leave it there. Thank you so much. Carlos Labiosa is vice chair...

LABIOSA: One time...

MARTIN: But I'm sorry, sir, we have to leave it there.

LABIOSA: All right.

MARTIN: Carlos Labiosa is vice chair for the Prince William County Human Rights Commission. Thank you so much for speaking with us, and perhaps, you'll join us again. Thanks again.

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