Ordinance Limiting Household Makeup Stirs Sharp Debate
Tuesday, January 10, 2006
Residents packed Manassas City Hall last night to express vehement opposition or unwavering support for a controversial ordinance that made it illegal for extended relatives such as aunts, uncles and cousins to live together as a family, primarily targeting the city's growing Latino population.
After listening to more than two hours of debate, the City Council decided to postpone discussion of the ordinance, which was suspended last week as groups including the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia promised a court challenge and called on the U.S. Justice Department to investigate possible violations of the federal Fair Housing Act.
Several dozen Latino residents called on the council to repeal the ordinance last night, including members of the group Mexicans Without Borders, who stood outside City Hall with signs. One read: "Targeting Immigrants -- the New Racism."
"This ordinance is affecting our lives and our families," said Ricardo Juarez, 38, a coordinator with the group. "For me and for my community, family is a sacred space, and we consider this ordinance to be against the basis of human civilization."
Others came to support the ordinance, arguing that their quiet suburban life had been disrupted by parking, garbage and other problems they associate with overcrowded housing and, more broadly, people they assume to be illegal immigrants.
In his state of the city address, Mayor Douglas S. Waldron (R) said officials would continue to review the ordinance.
"Let me say, given the lack of clear guidance from the courts and given the state and federal government's apparent unwillingness to address the problems . . . it is not surprising that our willingness to take action on this issue has made Manassas a lightning rod," Waldron said. "Those who would characterize any of our actions as racially motivated are absolutely wrong. . . . What we cannot and will not do is ignore the problem."
The ordinance, which the council adopted Dec. 5, changed a definition of family in the city's zoning code, essentially restricting household residents to immediate relatives even when the total number is below the legal occupancy limit.
The ordinance was being enforced by complaint, and most of the complaints phoned in to the city's "overcrowding hotline," which was established nearly two years ago, have been about Latino families, city officials have said.
In defense of the ordinance, officials have said it was aimed strictly at combating overcrowded housing. But the context in which it was adopted included much discussion and concern about illegal immigration into the small, suburban city of 40,000, which is about 72 percent white, 15 percent Latino and 13 percent black.
In October, for instance, Waldron asked Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) to declare a state of emergency in Virginia regarding illegal immigration, which the governor declined to do.
"The situation is eroding the strong spirit of our city," Waldron wrote in a letter to the governor. "We must stress that we are not anti-immigration, rather illegal immigration is our concern."
Besides the ACLU of Virginia, other activist groups have vowed to fight the ordinance, and several, including the Washington Lawyers' Committee, have sent formal letters to the city calling for the ordinance to be repealed.
In particular, the groups have pointed to a 1977 Supreme Court decision that struck down a similar ordinance defining family adopted by East Cleveland, Ohio, on the grounds that it violated 14th Amendment protections of family and privacy, among other reasons.
But last night, many residents urged the city to resist the pressure of groups they labeled as outsiders. "Anytime you are being criticized by the ACLU and The Washington Post, I say, keep up the good work," Tony Kostelecky said.
Others, including many who had come from outside the city, asked the council to repeal the ordinance. "It scares me," Joann Bagnerise of Dumfries said. "Why don't we sit down at the table and talk about how we can help our fellow human beings?"
For most of the evening, many Latino residents of Manassas stood outside the auditorium, where they watched speakers on television. One man, Miguel Calderon, said he felt unprepared to speak before the board, although he opposed the ordinance.
"I don't like it," he said. "I really don't like it."