Manassas's War on Immigrants

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Friday, December 30, 2005

"Ours is by no means a tradition limited to respect for the bonds uniting the members of the nuclear family. The tradition of uncles, aunts, cousins, and especially grandparents sharing a household along with parents and children has roots equally venerable and equally deserving of constitutional recognition. Over the years millions of our citizens have grown up in just such an environment, and most, surely, have profited from it. "

-- Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr., Moore v. City of East Cleveland, Ohio (1977)

WRITING FOR the Supreme Court, Justice Powell sensibly struck down a singularly ludicrous municipal attempt to define family living arrangements so strictly that it would criminalize a grandmother's choice to live with her grandson. Now comes the city of Manassas with an equally outrageous zoning ordinance. Under the guise of upholding standards in its pristine neighborhoods, it would outlaw households consisting of a family's cousins, uncles, aunts, nieces and nephews. Quite aside from the law's probable unconstitutionality, it is patently bigoted.

Like other suburban localities in this region, Manassas is undergoing a demographic shift as Hispanic immigrants, legal and undocumented, move into what were once relatively homogenous neighborhoods. Some of the immigrants share housing with their relatives to help out with the rent or mortgage -- the sort of arrangement that the late Justice Powell, a proud Virginian, would recognize as part of the striving that constitutes the American dream. Some communities are welcoming, others less so; in Manassas, city officials decided that the best way to deal with the immigrants was to harass them.

In an act of Big Brotherish government intrusion, they changed a zoning law to redefine family units suitable for cohabitation -- and to exclude uncles, aunts and others they deem as undesirables. To enforce their decree, Manassas authorities are sending inspectors into selected city households to interrogate hard-working people about the numbers and relationships of the inhabitants.

Ostensibly, the city's purpose is to address problems of crowding, parking and garbage arising from overlarge households. But don't be fooled. Large Anglo families whose grown, live-at-home children might all park on the street or overstuff the garbage bins have nothing to fear. Rather, city inspectors charged with enforcing the new law are responding to complaints, and the complaints are almost invariably about Hispanics households -- not necessarily ones that are overcrowded. In the law's conception and enforcement, there is blatant racial skewing. The idea in changing the law's definition of a family was "to make sure these peripheral people start to be winnowed out," Brian Smith, the city's chief building official, told The Post.

Leave aside the fact that America was founded by people then considered "peripheral," and that equally "peripheral people" -- immigrants -- have fought its wars, built its railways, populated its greatest cities and manned its mightiest industries. From the grousing of Manassas officials, you'd think that the city's immigrant families were living in rowdy boarding houses, sleeping in their dozens by shifts, making a nuisance of themselves and besmirching the neighborhoods; if that were the case, Manassas would have a legitimate interest in taking action. In fact, as The Post's Stephanie McCrummen reported, the homes targeted by Manassas inspectors are neither untidy nor unruly nor particularly crowded; an inspector's scrutiny might be drawn by eight people living in a five-bedroom house, hardly an instance of acute overcrowding.

Already, in a case vividly chronicled by Ms. McCrummen, the city's persecution of Hispanic immigrants has compelled Leyla and Juan Chavez, U.S. citizens who came to this country in the 1980s, to decide to leave the area. Their offense? Housing a nephew, as well as a renter couple who lived downstairs. The Chavez household and its ilk do not threaten the safety of Manassas's neighborhoods, nor its morals, nor "the strong spirit of our city," as Mayor Douglas S. Waldron (R) stated in a letter in the fall to Gov. Mark R. Warner (D). They simply represent a wave of demographic change, one of many that have defined and redefined America from its founding. If that offends some older residents' sense of propriety, tough. America was built on diversity, and to mount a campaign of harassment against it, as Manassas has done, dishonors the nation's immigrant tradition as well as constitutional protections.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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