Voters, Candidates Weigh Illegal Immigration in Virginia

It was once considered a staple of federal law enforcement, but state and local governments across the country are now attempting to influence the movement of undocumented workers and their families. Residents in Prince William County, Va., where recently passed anti-illegal immigration measures are on the minds of voters, are preparing for upcoming local elections.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

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

Today, we're going to look closely at the politics, the details and the effects of a local measure intended to discourage illegal immigration. I'm in Prince William County, Virginia, just outside of Washington.

We're going to go back into the studio a little later for a performance by and chat with the women's a cappella group Sweet Honey and the Rock. We think you will love it.

But first, illegal immigration. It was once considered the domain of the federal government. No more. State and local governments like Prince William County have taken it upon themselves to try to influence the movement of undocumented workers and their families. The county board here last month took steps to cut off some services to illegal immigrants and to give local police broader scope to detain suspected illegal immigrants or turn them over to the federal government.

This Tuesday, all of the supervisors are up for reelection, and one woman has launched a last minute write-in campaign in part as a protest against these new measures. I'm going to meet Aracely Panameno. She's running as a write-in candidate against incumbent John Jenkins. We're going to meet her at a local Salvadorian restaurant where she's organizing with some volunteers.

(Soundbite of doorbell)

Ms. ARACELY PANAMENO (Independent Candidate, Prince William County Board of Supervisors): My name is Aracely Panameno. I'm a candidate, independent candidate for Prince William County Board of Supervisors in the Neabsco District. We believe that already, we can say we've had victory, notwithstanding the fact that I entered this contest late. But despite the fact that I came in late, I'm actually a viable candidate - well, in my district. And I can show you a map of my district. The Neabsco District has 22,000 registered voters.

Right here, adjacent to my district, is what is referred to the Woodbridge District in Prince William County. Between those two districts, we have 14,000 Latino registered voters who don't normally turn out to vote. And so we are doing a major turn-out-the-vote effort.

MARTIN: You figure, if you have half.

Ms. PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: Let's say you have half.

Ms. PANAMENO: Right.

MARTIN: Let's say you have even a quarter of them, you have enough voters to be competitive.

Ms. PANAMENO: Well, the most dense Latino areas are precisely my area in the Woodbridge District. All right?

MARTIN: Okay. All right. I see your point. Well, why don't we back up for a second and just talk about the fact that - I mean, you mentioned the fact that you just got in this race…

Ms. PANAMENO: Yes.

MARTIN: …a couple of weeks ago…

Ms. PANAMENO: Yes.

MARTIN: …really. What made you jump in?

Ms. PANAMENO: Well, for starters, the law that was passed and the decision in terms of the services that are being denied - immigrant families, some of the decisions - for me, it's a smoke screen. The immigrant issue is being utilized to mask and to distract the community from the real issues that are affecting our community.

MARTIN: And what do you think those real issues are?

Ms. PANAMENO: Oh, my God, we are in terrible deficit. We have maxed out our capacity to borrow. Our schools get funded through the revenue that we get from properties, right? Property taxes. Well, we had a major boom in terms of housing here that began and sort of peaked in the late '80s, and lots of people began to move into the county. And then the housing market just took off and artificially, you know, housing has been appreciating and appreciating.

The chair, the current chair of the board with the current sitting board of supervisors in Prince William County, four years ago, they decided - in order to get elected - to tell people that they were going to lower taxes. So they lower the tax rate on property values. And not only that, they also capped our property tax rate. And they were banking on housing appreciation to continue to go up.

MARTIN: And now that the…

Ms. PANAMENO: And now…

MARTIN: …housing market has cooled off…

Ms. PANAMENO: Oh, my God, it has crashed. Nothing is selling, and you have so many vacant homes - homes up for sale, homes for rent…

MARTIN: So your argument is that there are these broader economic issues that the current crop of supervisors did not plan appropriately…

Ms. PANAMENO: Correct.

MARTIN: …for these changes…

Ms. PANAMENO: Correct.

MARTIN: …in economic conditions, and that they're blaming illegal immigrants for that.

Ms. PANAMENO: Absolutely.

MARTIN: But - well, talk to me about these measures. I mean, the fact of the matter is the argument that the supporters of these measures make is that if people are here illegally, they're not entitled to these services, and that it is reasonable as a way to protect county services and that the services which are paid for by the taxpayers to make sure that the people who are entitled to them get them. What do you say?

Ms. PANAMENO: There are already plenty of services that are already denied to undocumented immigrants by federal law and by state laws. Nobody gets welfare benefits. Nobody who is undocumented gets Social Security benefits. There are certain benefits that at the federal level, we've decided as a nation that it is within our interest to provide everyone, and that would be public education, and that would be also public health.

Aside from that, the chair, who is the most vociferous person on this issue, he claims that we are spending a lot of taxpayers' dollars on this issue. But he has absolutely no data to back up those claims.

MARTIN: But let me ask you this, though. The man you're running against, John Jenkins, he's been in office for 26 years.

Ms. PANAMENO: Twenty-six years.

MARTIN: In fact, I think it's my understanding that you voted for him three times.

Ms. PANAMENO: I did.

MARTIN: So, isn't it reasonable to believe that he felt that he's reflecting the will of the majority…

Ms. PANAMENO: No.

MARTIN: …in supporting these measures?

Ms. PANAMENO: No. The reason why I voted for him three times is because there was no other choice, or he was the lesser of the evils available in terms of candidates. And so that's the reason why I cast my vote the way I did. And it got to this point and I said, you know, I don't have any other choices. I might as well write my name in.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. PANAMENO: And thank goodness we have, you know, the greatest nation and the greatest democracy working on this Earth, and so that's actually what I've decided to do. So part of my proposal, as a candidate, is allow the federal government to do its job. Let's press on our federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

In the meantime, for those residents that are here already, let's allow them to contribute fully. The IRS issues individual tax identification numbers for the purposes of taxes. We're talking about taxes in the county. We're talking about using taxpayer dollars. Let's allow the families who are here already, who have children, whose children may be citizens in our schools, let's allow them to work and obtain that tax identification number and allow them to work and contribute to society fully.

MARTIN: All of the current supervisors voted in support of the measures that you oppose and that drove you to run. So if you are elected, how are you going to go anywhere? Are you going to be one among eight?

Ms. PANAMENO: Well, that presupposes that I am the only change that would happen. We are hoping to create more change.

MARTIN: How do you rate your chances?

Ms. PANAMENO: I think that I have really good chances of actually winning this election.

MARTIN: Okay. Aracely Panameno, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Ms. PANAMENO: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: Aracely Panameno. She's running as a write-in Democratic candidate for county supervisor in Prince William County, Virginia. She's running against incumbent John Jenkins, who's held the office for more than 20 years. She's taking a leave from her job as a financial policy analyst.

We reached out to John Jenkins. He declined our request for an interview, saying he could not comment on any other immigration issues because of a pending lawsuit against the County Board of Supervisors.

(Soundbite of footfalls)

MARTIN: Now, we're headed to meet Greg Letiecq. He runs a group called Help Save Manassas. He's been one of the most outspoken supporters of the anti-immigration measures.

(Soundbite of knocking)

MARTIN: Hi, Greg.

Mr. GREG LETIECQ (President, Help Save Manassas): Hey.

MARTIN: Hi. It's Michel Martin, NPR.

Mr. LETIECQ: Hey, come on in.

MARTIN: Thanks for letting us come over.

We just came from visiting with Aracely Panameno, who's running as a write-in candidate, challenging John Jenkins. The basis of her candidacy is that the resolution targeting illegal immigration is really a smokescreen, that the county is facing just broader fiscal problems, some of which arises from economic conditions, some of which arises from mismanagement. Her argument is is that illegal immigrants have been used as a scapegoat by the political leadership to avoid responsibility for the financial problems that they really should be dealing with. I just - what's your opinion about it?

Mr. LETIECQ: It's entirely ridiculous. You know, this is a very well-managed county, fiscally. We've been able to maintain controls on spending in taxes in the past year, but at the same time, we were able to add fire and public safety service personnel. The schools have been very financially responsible, despite being pressured enormously from overcrowding in the schools, now to the point where there's a number of schools that have trailers out there now. We spend over a hundred million dollars a year in taxpayer funds to educate those who are recent arrivals to our country, legal and otherwise. And we're still basically managing the fiscal impacts of that.

MARTIN: What do you think the scope of the illegal immigration issue is in Prince William County?

Mr. LETIECQ: It's very difficult to measure the problem because of, you know, the police department deliberately not trying to collect the information for so long. In this neighborhood where we're sitting right now, there's been enormous issues of overcrowding - residential overcrowding with 15 or 20 people - often day labors or multiple families - residing in one single family residence. And there's 13 gang houses, houses that have been converted essentially into prostitution. There's one over on Lohman(ph) Drive about three or four blocks away from here, and another one around the corner on Roxbury Avenue. We've had enormous issues with overcrowding in the schools. For the past several years, the enrollment has just skyrocketed in the schools.

MARTIN: Do you think she's got a chance?

Mr. LETIECQ: No, not at all.

MARTIN: Because?

Mr. LETIECQ: Just the electoral calculations in that district are that John Jenkins is a 30-year incumbent in that position. He has a very deep-seeded political machine. The Republicans don't even bother to run anyone against him. So this is a county that's going to elect conservative Republicans at every opportunity, and that's the one district that Republicans won't touch.

MARTIN: Do you have any sympathy at all for the people who are here legally, as Aracely Panameno is, who is a citizen, who says that now feels that she is being inappropriately scrutinized because of what she considers to be kind of anti-Latino sentiment that she believes has been stimulated by this kind of policymaking? Do you have any sympathy for that?

Mr. LETIECQ: We've had a number of legal residence of Hispanic origin and naturalized citizens who are members of Help Save Manassas, who are disturbed with what's happened with illegal aliens in the community and are devoted as Americans to try to find solutions to it, to the extent that people are concerned that they're suddenly targeted.

The reason that they feel that way is because the illegal alien lobby and Mexicans Without Borders in particular has done everything that they can in order to foster hysteria and fear within the community who are having to flock to them as their only defenders. But the downside of that is that they're scared to death and they're acting crazy and running away and think that they're going to get pulled over if they go to the grocery store. Well, if you're an illegal alien and you get pulled over, and, yeah, it's possible you could get deported. But it's not like the police are going out and doing massive sweeps. And I don't believe that this community has suddenly become anti-Latino. You know, personally, I don't condone that, and I don't think anyone else should.

MARTIN: Greg Letiecq is president of Help Save Manassas. It's a group that has worked for measures to discourage illegal immigration in Prince William County, Virginia.

Thanks so much for speaking with us.

Mr. LETIECQ: My pleasure.

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