Old Culpeper, New Rules

Although Northern Virginians have flooded into Culpeper, Steve Jenkins, stopping by Baby Jim's Snack Bar, is more concerned about illegal immigrants.
Although Northern Virginians have flooded into Culpeper, Steve Jenkins, stopping by Baby Jim's Snack Bar, is more concerned about illegal immigrants. (Dayna Smith - Dayna Smith -- The Washington Post)
By Marc Fisher
Sunday, October 8, 2006

F or 300 years, Steve Jenkins's ancestors have made Culpeper their home. They farmed the land and built the town. A Jenkins was one of the first in town to sign up for battle when the Civil War broke out. Today, members of the family are high school football coaches, businesspeople and political leaders.

So when he sees his home town overrun with traffic, when he sees dozens of men hanging out in a parking lot waiting for work, when kids in school are encouraged to take Spanish so they might better communicate with some of the newcomers, Jenkins questions whether this is still the Culpeper his family has loved for so many generations.

"For me, it's been like a three-year root canal -- really horrible," says Jenkins, a member of the Town Council and former police officer who works in sales for a uniform company and is an assistant football coach at nearby Caroline County High. "I'm just an old country boy who really liked going into the grocery and knowing who was who. Not like now, when the illegals are off to themselves."

For several years, there has been an undercurrent of grumbling in Culpeper about the influx of immigrants. Since 2000, the Hispanic population of Culpeper County has more than doubled, to about 5 percent of the 44,000 residents. That change has come in the context of enormous overall growth. The Census Bureau last year ranked Culpeper -- about 70 miles southwest of Washington along Route 29 -- the nation's sixth-fastest-growing county, with a 9.3 percent increase in housing units in just one year.

Most newcomers in the town of Culpeper have arrived not from south of the border, but from north: Northern Virginia. Fairfax, to be precise.

Still, most of the simmering anger in Culpeper focuses on immigrants. In the past few weeks, Jenkins has pushed those emotions out into the open. He wants Culpeper to join the small cadre of communities that tired of waiting for the federal government to decide whether to get tough on illegal immigrants or to ease their path toward citizenship. Jenkins says he just wants them to abide by the rules: "I don't want to get 'em in the wagons and outta here. I just want everyone to be aboveboard so we know who people are -- it's about safety and welfare."

So Jenkins called town meetings and proposed laws to see just what a small town can do about illegal immigrants. He says Culpeper needs to hire its first code enforcement officer -- to crack down on large numbers of unrelated people living together in one house. He proposes a law against loitering so that day laborers can be moved off the shopping center parking lot. He wants Culpeper to decree English as its official language, a move he says could let the town stop paying for court interpreters for Spanish speakers.

But mainly, what he wants is for Culpeper to go back to what it was, a small town -- the kind of place where his children would stay once they grew up. And that, Jenkins reluctantly concedes, is not likely to happen, even if every immigrant who arrived in the past decade were to vanish tomorrow.

It won't happen because it's generally the lighter-skinned migrants from Fairfax who brought the three-star restaurants where a plate of seafood paella runs $34, the gift shop that sells "aboriginal art" and Julie Thomas's lovely little corner shop that sells grass-fed beef, pasteurized lamb and all sorts of hormone-free meats and cheeses.

"Those who've moved here from Northern Virginia -- to them, this immigration thing isn't something of great significance," Jenkins says. "They're not concerned about the urbanization of Culpeper, but for those of us who've been here a long time, well, it's driving people away, down to Southwest Virginia, mostly."

In 1996, Thomas left Reston to move to the country. Two years ago, she opened Food for Thought, which sells the kinds of goods that are easily found in Fairfax but were virtually unknown in Culpeper.

Jenkins might be surprised to hear that Thomas is here for many of the same reasons that he cherishes Culpeper. She doesn't miss Reston -- "not for a nanosecond," she says. "It's just a cement jungle. The town center, with all the big-name chain stores and all those people -- it just does not have a neighborhood feel to it. Culpeper still has its quaint, unique, one-owner businesses."

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