An Immigration Crackdown Has Unintended Effects

A controversial new immigration law in Prince William County, Va., is getting mixed reviews so far. Some laud the arrest of dozens of illegal immigrants for minor crimes and the deportation of hundreds as a sign of success. Others lament a 40-percent drop in sales at some businesses and worsening housing foreclosures.

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

In Prince William County, Virginia, an immigration crackdown is under way. Although it has created headlines and heated emotions, it went into effect last month. Leaders in the county outside Washington, D.C., say their goal is to drive out illegal immigrants and to save money. The law denies some services to the undocumented, and the provision that has sparked the most controversy is this: Prince William police must now ask people they detain about their legal status if there's probable cause to think they're undocumented.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden visited Prince William County, and she reports on the law's impact so far.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: On a weekday morning, the parking lot is nearly deserted at the flea market strip mall in Manassas, where every store caters to Latinos.

(Soundbite of door chime)

LUDDEN: A delivery man wheels a dolly full of boxes to restock Mike's Quickmart. He waits patiently as manager Zane Roman(ph) goes into each aisle, scans the shelves, and shakes his head.

Mr. ZANE ROMAN (Store Manager, Mike's Quickmart): (Speaking in foreign language)

LUDDEN: I don't need any of it, he says, and sends the man away. His brother and store owner, Nick Roman(ph), says business is down 40 percent with Prince William's new immigration law. At the same time, he's seen sales at another family store elsewhere in Virginia pick up. Roman says his Prince William customers are moving away.

Mr. NICK ROMAN (Store Owner, Mike's Quickmart): They've gone to Maryland where, you know, the, I guess, the government is a lot more what I call sympathetic. They've gone to Alexandria, they've gone Arlington, North Carolina - a lot of people left.

(Soundbite of crying child)

LUDDEN: At a coffee shop an hour away in Maryland, a young woman named Jessie(ph) coos over her infant son as her friend Carol(ph) looks on. Both women came to the U.S. from Peru with visas but then stayed on after they expired. Both say they have left Prince William County out of fear over its new immigration law.

CAROL: (Speaking in Spanish)

LUDDEN: Carol says at first, she kept her job there cleaning houses, but even the commute was terrifying, worrying if some unforeseen traffic incident would lead to an encounter with police. With so much debate and media coverage, Carol also imagined the law to be even broader than it is.

CAROL: (Speaking in Spanish)

LUDDEN: A friend of mine was pregnant, she says. I thought, if she gives birth, I can't even visit her in the hospital because they might ask for my ID.

Carol finally called her boss and resigned. She's living with a cousin now, looking for work.

By all accounts, Carol and Jessie are far from alone. Members of Prince William's school board cited the immigration policy last month when they announced more than 600 students learning English as a second language had left in the middle of the year. The chair of the county commissioners lauded that as proof of the policy's success. Hispanic soccer teams have also relocated out of the county, saying fans were afraid to show up at games. Even legal residents say they've moved out, concerned for relatives who are undocumented.

In the face of mistrust, fear and confusion, Prince William Police Chief Charlie Deane has held dozens of community meetings to explain the law.

Chief CHARLIE DEANE (Prince William County Police Department): Today, a sobriety checkpoint in the eyes of some can appear to be an immigration checkpoint. We don't do immigration roadblocks, and we're not going to do those.

LUDDEN: In the policy's first month, Chief Deane told reporters his officers arrested 41 people who were found to be illegal immigrants. They were charged mainly with misdemeanors like drunk driving, public drunkenness or not having a driver's license. On the other hand, the police encountered 46 people that were here illegally and then released them, either with a summons or no charge at all.

Chief DEANE: Then the policy would require, and we did inform immigration, that we had had contact with this individual, had released the person. What happens after that is out of our hands.

LUDDEN: In other words, it's still up to the Federal Immigration Agency to track down the person. The new policy that allows officers to ask someone's legal status does not let them arrest someone solely on immigration charges.

Father DONALD PLANTY (Pastor, Holy Family Catholic Church; Chaplain, Prince William Police Department): I think the people that are afraid are people that don't understand the policy.

LUDDEN: Father Donald Planty is a chaplain for Prince William's police department. He also ministers at Holy Family Catholic Church where, he says, attendance at two Spanish-language Masses has only been going up.

Fr. PLANTY: There's standing-room only all across the back. The vestibule is full, especially with people with little children that can't sit still in church, and then the outside plaza as well.

LUDDEN: Father Planty is no fan of the immigration policy, but he does think officers are rightly, as he sees it, limiting their focus to more serious criminals.

At the county jail, though, even that's causing problems.

Colonel PETE MELETIS (Superintendent, Prince William County Police Department): You all did receive a copy that our jail board chairman had sent to the immigration…

LUDDEN: At a recent public hearing, the superintendent of Prince William's jail reported on another part of the county's policy. Last year, jail officials started detaining illegal immigrants until they could be picked up by the Federal Agency, Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

But Superintendent Pete Meletis said there's terrible overcrowding now because ICE can't keep up.

Colonel PETE MELETIS (Superintendent, Prince William County Police Department): I've been told by ICE that we overwork them, they don't have the bed space, nor do they have the budget to keep up with the amount of detainers we're putting on the individuals.

LUDDEN: A key activist who pushed for Prince William's immigration law has said all this is good. He hopes it will pressure the federal government to spend more money on immigration enforcement, and he's called the results of the new law, so far, impressive.

But some county commissioners are questioning the law's strain on the local budget and already asking whether it should be scaled back. Then there are the larger economic troubles, which have hit here as hard as anywhere. I called one realty company that catered to Hispanics…

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

LUDDEN: …to see how the rash of foreclosures was affecting them.

(Soundbite of answering machine)

Unidentified Man: We're sorry. You have reached a number that has been disconnected or…

LUDDEN: Carlos Castro(ph) shut down his realty a few months ago. He says many Hispanics, like others, were swept up in the real estate craze and bought bigger homes than they should have.

Mr. CARLOS CASTRO (Former Real Estate Owner): They were sold on the idea that they will rent rooms and they could afford the payment.

LUDDEN: But many of those immigrant renters fell victim to the downturning construction or fears over the county's immigration crackdown. Like a house of cards, once they left, the owners could no longer pay their mortgages.

In his two decades here, Castro's made his way from day laborer to successful entrepreneur and U.S. citizen. He says struggle is nothing new for Hispanics.

Mr. CASTRO: But when you're trying to struggle to survive and then you get hit on the head with this immigration law, you know, it's easier to just give up and start a new beginning somewhere else, and that's the sad part.

LUDDEN: Castro says Prince William County, Virginia, is his home, and he'll stick out these tough times. But he doesn't blame other immigrants who've left because they've come to feel they're just not wanted here.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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