By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 12, 2007
Should illegal immigrants be allowed to borrow the latest Harry Potter book from the neighborhood library? Can the teenager working at the local pool check swimmers' residency status before allowing them into the water? Where should an illegal immigrant with a stomach virus go if he can't pay for a doctor?
These are among the questions and scenarios that Prince William County staff members will have to sort through in the coming months because of a resolution approved unanimously Tuesday by the Board of County Supervisors that aims to deny county services to illegal immigrants. The resolution gives agencies 60 days to decide what services can be lawfully restricted and to devise a system for county employees to verify residency status.
With Tuesday's vote, Prince William joined Tulsa; Riverside, N.J.; Hazleton, Pa.; and other jurisdictions that have recently enacted measures targeting illegal immigrants. More than 1,000 bills and resolutions related to immigration were introduced by state governments this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures -- twice the number as last year. Failed congressional efforts to change immigration law are widely cited for the surge.
Yet local efforts to block services have had limited success elsewhere, and many public benefits, such as food stamps, welfare and Medicaid, are already unavailable to illegal immigrants. It is not clear how far Prince William officials are willing to push legal boundaries to achieve their stated goal of purging the county of illegal immigrants.
"There's a lot of unfinished business," said board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan).
"We have to figure out how to sculpt this thing, what services we will deny to illegal immigrants and what procedures to put in place for our police department to determine when they should be checking immigration status and what documents will be used to prove it," he said, noting the resolution's revision of police procedures.
That portion directs police officers to inquire about the residency status of anyone in custody if they have probable cause to doubt that the person is legally in the country. The county's police department has 60 days to create standards for determining probable cause, as well as the methods for residency verification. No other jurisdiction in Virginia has tried to play such a large role in immigration enforcement, and it is not clear whether federal authorities will be able to retrieve every illegal immigrant arrested in the Prince William.
Measures to limit or deny public services will be far trickier to implement, legal experts say. Supervisors have said they do not want to create undue burdens for county staff members or push costly, impractical policies. County park employees do not have access to federal immigration databases, for example.
"When you try to infiltrate federal immigration law into a state and local context, you're setting yourself up for lawsuits," said Kathleen Walker, national president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association. "There is no 'easy button' to figure out immigration status."
Other jurisdictions have sought to limit access to housing and jobs by pressuring landlords and employers, tactics Prince William has not attempted. "If businesses can't hire and landlords can't rent, most will leave," Hazleton Mayor Louis J. Barletta said of illegal immigrants. "That will help hospitals, help school districts and other services burdened by the cost of illegal immigration." A ruling on the legality of Hazleton's measures is expected soon in U.S. District Court.
Some Prince William supervisors, emboldened by recent U.S. Supreme Court decisions suggesting that the court has moved in a more conservative direction, say they would not shrink from legal battles.
For example, a 1982 decision in Plyler v. Doe protects the right of illegal immigrant children to attend public schools, and supervisors have regularly blamed illegal immigrants for rising education costs in the county. The percentage of Hispanic students -- many of whom are not illegal immigrants -- enrolled in Prince William schools has nearly quadrupled in the past decade, from 6.6 to 24.2 percent.
"With this new Supreme Court, we have a real opportunity to overturn Plyler versus Doe," Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) said before Tuesday's vote. "I'm not saying we should be the jurisdiction to do it. But the federal government ties our hands and doesn't look at what the costs are."
Other supervisors are not as comfortable with measures that would affect minors, regardless of their residency status. "You want children off the streets. You want them in a safe environment," Supervisor Hilda M. Barg (D-Woodbridge) said. "Will they have to prove they're legal citizens before they use the Boys and Girls Club?"
Legal scholars who have reviewed the Prince William resolution say its cautious language leaves little room for court challenges, and controversy probably will come later, depending on which public services the county tries to curtail.
"We'll just have to wait and see until there's something more concrete," said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor.