MICHELE NORRIS, host:
While Arizona contends with a federal lawsuit over its immigration policy, other states are trying to push their own bills. Just this week, Florida's attorney general announced a measure he says is even tougher than Arizona's, and Virginia wants to strengthen its policies.
The attorney general there has issued a legal opinion that allows police to check the status of anyone they stop for any reason. Making that a statewide policy may be a way to crack down on illegal immigrants while avoiding courts.
NPR's Jamie Tarabay traveled to Prince William County where the policy is already in use, and she sent this report.
JAMIE TARABAY: It's a steamy morning at the farmers' market pavilion in Manassas. Handpicked tomatoes, squash, zucchini and cucumbers fill stalls. Manassas is a Civil War town.
Mr. BOB MARSHALL (Republican Delegate, Virginia House of Delegates): The first military railroad was here in Prince William County during the war.
TARABAY: Bob Marshall is a Republican delegate for Prince William County. It was his letter to the state attorney general asking for clarification that set off so much debate last week. He says he was prompted by the events in Arizona.
Mr. MARSHALL: Some of the people who do come across the border for being like day labor or construction workers - some, not all - are part of a distribution network for drugs. And parks are routinely used to actually grow drugs and harvest them.
TARABAY: Right now, most of Virginia's law enforcement officials can ask about a person's immigration status if they've been legally detained. The opinion wasn't much different from the one issued three years ago by then-Attorney General Robert McDonnell, who's now governor. Charlie Deane has been Prince William County's police chief for 22 years.
Mr. CHARLIE DEANE (Police Chief, Prince William County): Our policy is based on understanding of that opinion. And I don't even think the attorney general's opinion advocates requiring officers to check the immigration status of everyone that they have reason to believe is illegal. I think it still talks about it after they've been arrested.
TARABAY: That distinction is important. In Arizona, the state wants to make it mandatory for people to carry immigration papers. It also wants police officers to detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants. Prince William County's policy, says Deane, is the most aggressive it can be without risking lawsuits.
Mr. DEANE: The devil's in the details of this and we want people who are - live in this community to trust the police and feel that they are being treated fairly.
TARABAY: But the half-dozen shoppers we spoke to at this Hispanic market said they don't think that fairness applies to them. More than two years into the policy and the results are starting to show. Hans Silvera said his neighborhood has changed completely since Prince William County began instituting the policy.
Mr. HANS SILVERA: A lot of people moved out, a lot of people left their houses most of their stuff in it. And it came to the point where, in my neighborhood, I only had about two neighbors in the block. That's about it.
TARABAY: He says a lot of people left, not because they were undocumented, but out of fear and confusion. Many just crossed county lines, where he says the laws aren't as strict. That drop in numbers has emboldened people like Corey Stewart, chairman of Prince William County's board of supervisors.
Mr. COREY STEWART (Chairman, Prince William County Board of Supervisors): I started traveling the Commonwealth of Virginia and telling communities that, you know, they ought to take a look at what we're doing and perhaps adopt the same measure.
TARABAY: Stewart claims violent crime dropped sharply after Prince William County passed its law. But statistics show less than five percent of those arrested in 2008 were illegal immigrants. Police Chief Deane says this policy will not get rid of crime.
Mr. DEANE: Let's not lead our community to believe that this is going to solve our crime problem the way it works today.
TARABAY: But crime was the focus last week, when a nun died in a drunk-driving accident. The other driver is a suspected illegal immigrant who had two DUI convictions and was supposed to have been deported. Others only see division in the community. Nancy Lyall is with Mexicans Without Borders. She says if Virginia adopts a tougher policy, like in Prince William County, it would only make matters worse.
Ms. NANCY LYALL (Legal Coordinator, Mexicans Without Borders): This was the heart of the Confederacy, so racial feelings are just below the surface all throughout this county and all throughout this state. And issues like this just bring them right back up to the surface.
TARABAY: Five other states have already introduced legislation similar to Arizona's controversial new law. Virginia lawmakers say, they'll do the same next year.
Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.