The law called for police to question people they suspected of being in the country illegally. It also denied services to elderly, homeless, or drug-addicted illegal immigrants. In addition, the county had joined a federal program, known as 287 (G), that established formal cooperation between local law enforcement and the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.
Immigrants and their advocates called the ordinance unconstitutional and predicted it would lead to racial profiling. Latinos here illegally became nervous about driving, going to the hospital or even walking down the street.
Fears of deportation, combined with the nationwide economic downturn, prompted between 2,000 and 6,000 immigrants to leave, according to a later study by the University of Virginia. Legal immigrants, too, reported being asked to show proof of residency for basic services.
“This was a very polarized community, and there were unrealistic expectations on all sides,” said Charlie Deane, who was county police chief when the measure was approved.
At the height of the tensions, activists reported receiving threats. Elena Schlossberg, a mother of two who opposed the law, got intimidating e-mails. “People hated you that didn’t even know you, and wished horrible things upon you,” she recalled.
After the county board voted unanimously to fund the new police program, stunned immigrants began to pack their belongings.
Meanwhile, county police, worried that the law would overturn years of building good community relations, embarked on a public information blitz, attending community meetings and circulating brochures in Spanish that pledged not to arrest people “based on their racial appearance” and promised to protect crime victims from being deported.
Finally, in 2008, amid growing controversy over its legality, the ordinance was modified. Police were directed to question all criminal suspects about their immigration status — but only after an arrest.
“Within weeks of changing the policy,” said board member Marty Nohe, “it ceased to be the prime thing people talked about.”
No easy solutions
On a recent snowy evening in February, every chair in the Union Hispana, a financial services office in Manassas, was taken by Latinos waiting for help with their tax returns. Some were illegal immigrants, but all had arrived with pay stubs, taxpayer ID cards and a desire to solidify their place in American society.
“Our family is doing okay, but our dream is to be 100 percent legal,” said Miguel Serrano, 34, a landscaper from Guatemala. “We have three kids and a house now, but my wife does not have papers, and we always worry about what would happen if she got sent home. But now that Mr. Obama has a second term, we are praying that he can resolve our problems once and for all.”