By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 6, 2007
Prince William County is moving to enact what legal specialists say are some of the toughest measures in the nation targeting illegal immigrants, including a provision that would direct police to check the residency status of anyone detained for breaking the law -- whether shoplifting, speeding or riding a bicycle without a helmet.
The measures would also compel county schools and agencies -- including libraries, medical clinics, swimming pools and summer camps -- to verify the immigration status of anyone who wants to use services in Virginia's second-largest county. Courts have upheld the right of undocumented immigrants to a public education, raising the possibility of a legal challenge.
Although similar efforts to create inhospitable conditions for illegal immigrants have been attempted recently in Hazleton, Pa., Farmers Branch, Tex., and Valley Park, Mo., the Prince William resolution appears to be unique, specialists say. And with federal immigration reform stalled in Congress, officials across the country are increasingly likely to experiment with restrictions that test legal boundaries and push for a greater role for local police in immigration enforcement.
Other Virginia towns such as Manassas, Herndon and Culpeper have considered or adopted laws aimed at illegal immigrants, but none have been as extensive as the Prince William proposals. The county Board of Supervisors blames illegal immigrants for crime, spiraling school costs, overcrowded housing and cultural behaviors that they say undermine their constituents' quality of life.
"Citizens will no longer accept that our hands are tied and that responsibility lies with the federal government," said Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who proposed the resolution last month. "They want action."
Drawn by relatively affordable housing and abundant construction jobs, thousands of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America have moved to Prince William in the past decade. Stirrup's resolution says that their presence is "causing economic hardship and lawlessness" and that county agencies might be fueling the problem "by failing to verify immigration status as a condition of providing public services."
Outside a county health clinic yesterday, Millie, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she is undocumented, started to tremble when told of the resolution. She moved to Prince William 15 years ago and overstayed her visa. "I don't know how people will live in this country," she said. "Your house will be like a prison. People will be dying of fear."
The resolution is scheduled for a vote Tuesday, and most of the eight supervisors -- who are up for election this fall -- said they plan to support it, although changes could be made.
The resolution does not address how county authorities would verify residency status, but supervisors said they wouldn't want residents to carry passports in Prince William; a valid driver's license or state-issued identification would suffice. If a police officer determined that a person was in the country illegally, the officer would contact federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials.
The resolution also would remove any restrictions on county employees to send, receive or maintain information on a person's residency status in determining eligibility for county services.
"We don't get into [immigration status] for a library card. All we require is proof of address," said a county librarian who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she isn't authorized to speak to reporters. Checking a user's immigration status would be possible, she said, "but it would seem to be going a little too far into privacy."
Stirrup said the resolution's goal is to deny services to illegal immigrants -- including most forms of medical care and public education. "If they're here illegally, we have no responsibility to educate them," he said. In the case of emergency medical care, he said patients would be treated but promptly reported to the federal immigration agency.
Kathleen Walker, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said such measures would be "extremely harsh" and at odds with the 1982 Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which prohibits states from denying education to undocumented immigrants. "You can't prevent a child from going to school," she said.
Other immigration scholars said most of the measures reaffirm federal laws already in place that are seldom enforced by local governments. The resolution is not "extraordinary," said Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City and a former immigration adviser to former U.S. Attorney General John D. Ashcroft. "What is unusual is that they are packaging all of these measures into one resolution."
But there is one exceptional item in the resolution, Kobach said -- a provision that would give legal residents "writ of mandamus" powers, which would allow them to sue Prince William if they suspect that a county agency has failed to comply with the resolution's aim of denying services and reporting violators. Muzaffar Chishti, director of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute's office at the New York University law school, said that particular measure is "as close to encouraging vigilante action as I have ever seen on paper."
"Clearly, this is inciting people," he said.
But Chishti said the proposal he finds most "extreme" is the one that would require county police officers to check the residency status of everyone they stop -- regardless of "national origin, ethnicity or race."
"No one has ever given any police the authority to ask, 'Are you a citizen?' " Chishti said. "That is clearly unconstitutional and problematic."
Stirrup's resolution would address constitutional concerns by specifying that an officer's inquiry about residency status cannot extend the duration of a person's police detention.
In drafting the resolution, Stirrup worked with the Washington-based Immigration Reform Law Institute, the law firm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates tougher immigration laws. Stirrup said he did not consult with county Police Chief Charlie T. Deane, who, in an earlier letter to the supervisors about a similar measure, warned of "a potential chilling effect on witness cooperation and victim-witness cooperation."
Supervisors said their constituents have been flooding their offices with phone calls and e-mails in support of Stirrup's resolution. "Illegal immigration is consuming everyone's constituents," said Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries).
For Hispanic immigrants in Prince William, the resolution could portend heightened cultural and ethnic tensions.
"There's a lot of hate in this county," said Tulio Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico who has lived in Prince William since 1972. He also suspects another motive behind the measures.
"It's an election year, and it's a great wedge issue," he said. "So who do you pick on?"