Culpeper Officials Targeting Illegal Immigrants

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 21, 2006

The "anti-crowding" controversy that roiled Manassas last winter resurfaced this month, in Culpeper, where town officials want to crack down on illegal immigration with zoning ordinances that curb the number of people who can live together in a single-family house.

Culpeper's Town Council voted unanimously last week to move toward hiring a special officer who would aggressively enforce existing zoning codes -- such as one that limits to five the number of unrelated people who can share a household. Proposals to declare English the town's primary language and punish employers and landlords who hire or rent to undocumented immigrants are being debated by the council, which has voted to send a letter to federal officials requesting assistance and advice on curtailing illegal immigration.

"We have an influx of illegal immigrants in our community, and we need to get a handle on the situation now," said council member F. Steve Jenkins, a former Culpeper County Board of Supervisors member who was elected to the Town Council in July.

Since taking office, Jenkins has led a campaign to move aggressively against Culpeper's undocumented immigrant population. "My family has lived here for generations," he said. "But the demographics have changed the complexion of Culpeper, and I haven't been pleased with that."

In December, Manassas approved an anti-crowding ordinance changing its definition of family to tighten its zoning code. The law was later repealed under threat of a federal investigation into discriminatory housing practices and pressure from national civil rights groups.

Just as a development boom has attracted undocumented workers to Prince William County in recent years, Culpeper -- about 35 miles southwest of Manassas -- has also had a big increase in its immigrant population, mostly Mexicans and Central Americans drawn to the area by the demand for construction and farm labor. Culpeper's population has swelled from 10,000 in 2000 to more than 14,000 today, according to Mayor Pranas A. Rimeikis, an immigrant from Lithuania.

"For the people who have lived here all their lives, the growth itself is very frustrating," he said. "We have a lot more traffic than we did before. There is overcrowding in the schools and just more people all over the place, and a lot of negative aspects that people notice with that growth."

The number of Hispanics in Culpeper might be only 1,000 or 1,500, Rimeikis said, but that would be a tenfold increase since 2000.

"There's a perception that there's a significant drain on social services," he said, adding that the town lacks data to confirm that. "We haven't gotten any reports, so we don't really have a handle on to what extent there's a problem."

Rimeikis said town officials were aware of what happened in Manassas and wanted to proceed cautiously to avoid legal trouble. "We don't want to go there," he said. "When you get to the reality of taking on this thing, going after employers for verifying legal presence, or going after landlords, we don't have the resources to do that. We'd have to double our police force."

Jenkins said that unlike Manassas, Culpeper isn't trying to amend its legal definition of family and only wants to "fairly and assertively" enforce zoning laws already on the books. He said that Culpeper should set up a task force to "flush out" statistics to quantify the impact of illegal immigration in monetary terms and that examples were many.

"What I've seen is a destruction of our community," Jenkins said. "The growth that's occurred has threatened our water supply. The continual lack of zoning enforcement has created situations where property values have decreased. There are public safety issues now that didn't exist before."

Still more disturbing, Jenkins said, is the lack of information available about immigrants' identities. "We don't know who these people are," he said. "Unless someone has been living in a cave, they know that this country is a major target for terrorists. [Terrorists] go to small communities like ours and network out."

Jenkins clarified that he didn't actually think there were terrorists among Culpeper's Hispanic immigrant population but that there was a real danger in "not knowing who's who."

Members of Culpeper's Hispanic community said that those types of allegations are absurd and that Jenkins's campaign doesn't reflect the sentiments of most of the town's residents.

"Culpeper's economy depends on Hispanic workers," said Martin Bernal, a self-described immigrant "pioneer" who came to Culpeper from Mexico in 1988 when there were no other Latino immigrants in town.

Bernal owns a market and helped organize a march earlier this month to protest the council's actions. He said Jenkins was using Hispanic immigrants as a boogeyman to advance his political aspirations.

"We're easy to pick on," he said.

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