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A county in Virginia has passed one of the most aggressive measures yet targeting illegal immigrants. The Board of Supervisors in Prince William County, outside Washington, D.C., says the influx of migrants has caused economic hardship and lawlessness. They say they feel compelled to do something following Congress' failure to overhaul immigration law. Opponents call the measure racist; civil rights group say they may challenge it as unconstitutional.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: Amid an overflow turnout last night, Christine Pennel(ph) stood out with a tiny American flag flapping from her backpack. She said undocumented immigrants have ruined her neighborhood's quality of life.
Ms. CHRISTINE PENNEL: We've got houses that are run down, grass four and five feet tall, people urinating in their backyard, storm doors propped open indicating rooms for rent, 10 to 15 cars at a house that only have four to five bedrooms.
LUDDEN: Inside, others complained of overcrowded emergency rooms and public schools. A number, like Donna Woodowsky(ph), drew a contrast with their own ancestors who'd passed through Ellis Island.
Ms. DONNA WOODOWSKY: There were no ESL programs, no county government handouts. Unlike those immigrants before them who helped build our nation, these immigrants have entered our country illegally, and many of them with the expectation of government assistance.
LUDDEN: County Supervisor John Stirrup says his proposal aims to drive illegal immigrants from the county. Police will be able to ask about immigration status if they have probable cause that someone's undocumented. And county officials can inquire in order to deny services, everything from non-emergency medical care to public parks to libraries.
Mr. JOHN STIRRUP (County Supervisor, Prince William County, Virginia): And fundamentally, if you're not a taxpaying county resident, you're not entitled to those services.
LUDDEN: During the hearing, Commissioner Hilda Barg even wondered about the county's donations to charity.
Ms. HILDA BARG (Commissioner, Prince William County, Virginia): I believe we give about $20,000 a year to the Boys and Girls Club. Well, they have to prove they're legal for that money to be used for kids in the Boys and Girls Club. That's something that I think we're going to have to look at.
LUDDEN: Officials promised they would. Dozens of residents voiced opposition to the measure, calling it shameful and racist. Some pointed out many illegal immigrants do pay taxes and said they contribute to the economy. Amazingly, the strongest opposition came from other Prince William County officials. The county executives said federal law already bars illegal immigrants from various social programs and said these new measures would be expensive to implement. Long-time Police Chief Charlie Deane predicted community policing will end and minorities will be too scared to report crimes.
Chief CHARLIE DEANE (Chief of Police, Prince William County, Virginia): I'm concerned the crime rate among our youth will rise if immigrant children are not allowed access to recreational facilities; or if health clinics deny or cause a chilling effect sufficient to keep sick women, children and the elderly away there will be harsh unintended consequences.
LUDDEN: Still, the measure passed unanimously. Afterward, Elmer Ramirez(ph) was in disbelief. He said he's lived illegally in the U.S. for 17 years. He owns a house and has three American children but figures he'll no longer take them to the park or swimming pool for fear of being asked to show his papers.
Mr. ELMER RAMIREZ: (Unintelligible) I just go to work and come back home and stay home.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: Outside, a community activist rallied a somber crowd of Hispanics. He warned that other towns may now pass similar laws and everyone raised their arms and vowed to fight them.
Unidentified Man: (Spanish spoken)
Unidentified Group: (Spanish spoken)
LUDDEN: United, they chanted, an attack on one of us will be considered an attack on us all.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.