Va. County Limits Plan for Immigration Checks

Citing budget concerns, authorities in Virginia's Prince William County have scaled back an aggressive policy to check immigration status. A law aimed at checks on the legal status of anyone police stop will now be applied only in case of arrest.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

We have an update now on a story we've been following. Prince William County in Northern Virginia has scaled back its illegal immigration policy. The policy had been called one of the toughest in the nation.

As Jennifer Ludden reports, budget concerns brought about the softening of the measure.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: Starting in March, Prince William police officers had been required to check the legal status of anyone they detained if there was probable cause to believe they were in the U.S. illegally. That measure sparked widespread fear among the county's large Hispanic community. People worried a minor traffic violation could lead to them getting deported. And by all accounts, hundreds if not thousands of Latinos, moved out.

From the beginning, Police Chief Charlie Deane took pains to explain he would not be conducting random roundups. Still, he worried the aggressive policy would expose his officers to lawsuits charging racial profiling. So Deane asked that video cameras be put in each patrol car to document officers' actions, but that would cost $3 million. And in recent months, the current economic downturn has hit Prince William County hard. Supervisors voted not to spend the money on the cameras. Then last night, they decided that without the cameras, the police check policy was too risky.

Prince Williams's new policy requires only that officers ask someone's legal status once they're arrested. One law enforcement expert says that approach is not so unusual; many other departments do the same. Even before the scaling back, police chief Deane had played down the impact of the original policy. He reported in the first month that 41 people had been apprehended under it; all but two of them would have been arrested anyway. It's not clear now whether the new softer policy will persuade any Hispanics to move back or stop others from leaving.

Prince Williams County supervisors believe in the long term, the outflow will save the county money on things like education and health care. Critics say it's only damaged the county so far, hurting local business and worsening a housing crisis.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.

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