By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007; A01
Prince William County supervisors voted unanimously last night to approve a resolution that targets illegal immigrants by attempting to curb their access to public services and increasing immigration enforcement by local police.
But the resolution approved last night significantly weakens a previous proposal, removing or altering several of its toughest measures but asking county employees to look for ways to lawfully deny services to illegal immigrants.
The largest board meeting crowd in 20 years showed up for the vote at the county government complex, turning Prince William into a microcosm of a debate playing out in communities across the country in the wake of Congress's failure to reform immigration laws.
"How are we supposed to survive here?" asked Gregorio Calderón, a legal U.S. resident from El Salvador who said he worries that police will harass him because of his ethnicity. "They're going to pull me over just for being Hispanic."
The previous resolution would have required officers to check the residency status of anyone who breaks a law, no matter how minor. The measure approved yesterday directs officers to check the status of anyone in police custody who they suspect is an illegal immigrant.
The changes were made after county attorneys, police and supervisors expressed concerns about the legality of some of the measures. The new resolution would not deny access to schools and other legally mandated services. Another measure that would have allowed residents to sue the county for providing services to illegal immigrants was also stripped out.
But the measures still place Prince William at the forefront of Virginia jurisdictions that are trying to check illegal immigration.
"This resolution does have teeth and changes county policy immediately," said board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan).
Protests before and after the vote and the unusually large crowd outside the board chambers created a charged atmosphere. More than 100 people addressed board members, delaying the vote. Hundreds of others watched on big-screen TVs in the lobby and were reminded to refrain from applauding or booing. One speaker was removed.
When Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville) introduced the resolution last month, he said its goal was to deny all public services to illegal immigrants and order local police to check the residency status of anyone caught breaking the law. The altered version charts a more cautious course.
Stirrup's resolution had said that illegal immigration is causing "economic hardship and lawlessness" in Prince William and that county agencies may be encouraging illegal immigration by failing to verify immigration status as a condition of providing public services.
The measure "is the first step towards taking back our community," he said.
The new version gives county workers 60 days to help board members determine which public services can be lawfully denied to illegal immigrants. Unlike the previous resolution, it specifies that services such as emergency medical care and other benefits mandated by law cannot be restricted. At the request of the county's attorneys, language was added to several sections to avoid violating federal and state laws.
A roughly equal number of speakers appeared to support and oppose the resolution. One was removed after berating Stirrup for a joke he made to Stewart at a previous meeting in which Stirrup suggested a "Hispanic flag" could be flown in Woodbridge, which has a relatively large Hispanic community.
Many speakers said they were Hispanic immigrants.
Immigrants "have built our homes; they have built our roads," said Hank Azais, who owns a tax preparation service catering to Hispanics in Manassas.
Others said they were worried about damage to the county's reputation. "Prince William County does not have to become the racist capital of America," said Harry Wiggins, a Lake Ridge resident.
Many Stirrup supporters told the board they applauded the measures and saw the effort as a last stand against rising crime, overcrowding and the failure of Hispanic newcomers to adapt to American culture.
"If we turn our heads and permit illegal entry into our county without making any effort or identification, we are saying our language, our culture, our Constitution, our neighborhoods and our flag are inconsequential," said Sue Fleming, a member of the group Help Save Manassas. "It is a price I do not care to pay."
Others decried rapid cultural changes in their communities. "I'm tired of pressing '1' for English" on the phone, Woodbridge resident Chris King said.
One element of Stirrup's resolution was noticeably absent from the amended version. It would have given residents the ability to sue county agencies if they suspected them of providing services to illegal immigrants. County staffers and supervisors expressed concern about the time and expense the county would potentially spend to fend off litigation.
Privately, though, several supervisors had expressed doubts about the implications of denying public services to immigrants. But given the political climate surrounding the issue, they said they felt compelled to back Stirrup.
"It's a start, and Mr. Stirrup was very gutsy," Supervisor Maureen S. Caddigan (R-Dumfries) said.