“People’s neighborhoods have gotten better, and the improvement in the neighborhoods has been most dramatic in the parts of the county that have heavier concentrations of minorities,” said Republican Corey Stewart, a champion of the Prince William law who chairs the county’s Board of Supervisors and wants to be lieutenant governor. The Virginia study found that that most crime statistics were unchanged but that the county’s hit-and-run accidents were reduced by nearly half.
But in court, the duo’s magic words began to fail them.
“We conclude that the ordinance’s sole purpose is not to regulate housing but to exclude undocumented aliens,” wrote Thomas M. Reavley, a federal appellate judge, in blocking a 2008 license-to-rent law in Farmers Branch, Tex. “It is an impermissible regulation of regulation.”
The duo has won some legal victories: The Supreme Court last year upheld an Arizona law that limits the employment of illegal immigrants. But judges have blocked all or parts of immigration laws in Alabama, Arizona, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, as well as in several cities.
In Farmers Branch, it has cost about $4.5 million to defend the law. And it hasn’t been in force for a day.
“How do you get out of those things? You know, if we just walk away from it, we’ve got the other people’s legal fees that would fall on top,” said Mayor Bill Glancy, who notes that the suspended law still seems to have driven away illegal residents, reducing turnover in schools. “You run legal expenses way up, to where it’s almost impossible to back down from it.”
Now, it all hangs on the Supreme Court. After Wednesday’s oral arguments, it could take weeks for the justices to decide whether Arizona’s broader immigration law is an unlawful overstep onto federal turf.
If they win, “copycat legislation will explode,” Hethmon said. “This is the classic environment for, if you will, sort of nativist-type sentiment. . . . It should explode at the states or — even better — [Congress] will be provoked to take action.”
In the meantime, Hethmon had an up-close and unpleasant experience with the same kind of local police he had done so much to empower.
The problem began with graffiti on a highway overpass in Bowie. Police there suspected that Hethmon’s teenage son might be involved and obtained a search warrant. They arrived at 7 a.m. on March 9 with a heavily armed team of county officers.
“Come in with masks, guns, screaming. You know, knocking everybody down,” Hethmon recalled. “I tried to explain to them, you know: ‘Look, I’m a lawyer, this is outrageous.’ [The reply was:] ‘Shut up and lie down on the floor.’ ”
Police said they found 2.5 grams of marijuana in the house. They filed charges against Hethmon, his son and his wife — all for the same drugs. The charges against Hethmon will be dropped, prosecutors said last week.
Hethmon said the experience has not changed his work.
“The fact that a law is legitimate and serving a purpose doesn’t mean that it can’t be abused,” he said. “Human beings are flawed people.”
And so, for the lesser-known of this duo, there has been a personal test. After he did so much to place greater trust in local police officers nationwide, police in Prince George’s County sent a SWAT team to his house to look for . . . spray paint.
“It’s ironic, you know,” Hethmon said.
Staff researcher Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.