Fear Seizes Pr. William Immigrants -- Legal and Not

By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some cowered indoors, wary of police sweeps. Others said they'd leave for another county, or state -- anywhere that didn't seem as unwelcome as Prince William suddenly did. One father gave his sons copies of their green cards to carry to summer classes in elementary school, worried they'd be stopped and questioned.

Although the anti-illegal-immigrant measures approved last week in Prince William County were less severe than proposed originally, Hispanic residents there say a clasp of fear has gripped their community in recent days, as anxiety and confusion over the policies ripple through supermarkets, job sites, hair salons and living rooms.

"Everyone is scared to go outside," said Jorge Villarta, a Salvadoran immigrant who spoke in Spanish as he waited for his wife at the Salon Hispano beauty shop in Woodbridge, dropping his voice to a whisper. "They think the police will grab them, and they'll be deported," said Villarta, who added that he is a legal resident but still fears arrest.

Elsewhere across the region and beyond, Hispanic immigrants kept close tabs on events in Prince William this week, wondering whether other jurisdictions would follow suit. "A lot of our students think this [resolution] is one of many that are going to pass in our local cities and counties," said Amy White, director of the English as a Second Language program at Catholic Charities' Hogar Hispano program in Falls Church. Legal residents are worried about racial profiling, she added.

To date, Herndon, Manassas and Culpeper are the only jurisdictions in the Washington region to enact or consider policies targeting illegal immigrants, and none is as extensive as what Prince William is attempting.

The resolution approved unanimously by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday orders police officers to verify the residency status of anyone in custody whom they suspect to be an illegal immigrant. The resolution also seeks to block access to public services and benefits for illegal immigrants, claiming they are causing "economic hardship and lawlessness" in the county. The measures -- the toughest in Virginia -- apply to all illegal immigrants, but in Prince William that means mostly Hispanics.

Support for the measures among the county's non-Hispanic residents appeared to be broad, and county supervisors said their offices have been flooded by calls and e-mails backing the resolution. "This country is founded on the basis of laws," said Tom Brown, at a Borders bookstore on the Prince William Parkway. "Illegal means illegal."

Others said they were torn. "I can see the benefit to county taxpayers. But these are very hardworking individuals," said Marilyn Koshetar of Woodbridge. "It's a no-win situation."

Police and other county agencies have yet to establish procedures for the stepped-up enforcement, but the practical impact was in plain view last week along Route 1 in Woodbridge, a usually busy commercial strip lined with Hispanic-owned businesses.

Markets and restaurants were nearly empty, with slow sales reported at almost a dozen shops and restaurants. "What's going on?" wondered one manager of a Popeye's who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Why is it so slow?"

A nearby KFC popular with Hispanics was nearly deserted at lunchtime. Meanwhile, business was booming at Pizza Hut, where the manager reported a spike in home delivery calls.

No one is sure how many illegal immigrants live in Prince William, Virginia's second-most-populous county, or what would happen if many of them left. Thousands of migrants from Latin America -- legal and illegal -- have arrived in the past decade to fill a voracious demand for jobs in construction and other services, drawn by the county's building boom and relatively low housing costs. Since 1996, the percentage of Hispanic students in the county's school system has soared from 6.6 to 24.2 percent.

Prince William's Salvadoran community has grown so fast that the Salvadoran government opened a Woodbridge consulate in 2005. Many Hispanic newcomers have settled there and elsewhere in the county's eastern half, establishing communities and commercial strips in such places as Dumfries and Dale City.

Large Mexican and Central American communities have formed in and around Manassas. But relatively few Hispanics live in the county's more affluent western areas, such as the Gainesville district represented by Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R), who authored the resolution.

Hispanics who have lived in Prince William for years said they felt blindsided by the measures and the stinging comments they heard from county residents who blame them for ruining their neighborhoods, parks and schools.

"It seems like it came out of nowhere," said Woodbridge resident Silvia Leiva, 18, who was born in Arlington County. She said members of her family and friends -- some legal, others not -- were "flipping out."

Leiva also said the resolution's success exposed the political weakness of the county's Hispanic community, which does not vote in proportion to its numbers. "People are saying they should do more to learn the language and register to vote," she said.

Villarta and other immigrants interviewed last week described Tuesday's vote as the latest in a litany of disappointing signs about their future in the United States. "People have been watching the news, hoping something good would happen in the Senate," he said, referring to the proposed immigration reforms that died in Congress. "Now we watch the news expecting to hear the worst."

Although the measures approved last week were less harsh than first proposed, a cloud of confusion hung over Prince William's Hispanic community long after the board meeting. The scope of the resolution remains largely undetermined: County staff will have 90 days to figure out which services can be denied to illegal immigrants lawfully, and the police department will take 60 days to establish how residency will be verified and what will constitute probable cause.

The uncertainty appeared to extend all the way to Prince William's top elected official, who seemed to interpret the resolution differently from the county's police department. "If you're pulled over and you're a citizen or legal immigrant, you've got nothing to worry about," said board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-Occoquan), explaining the policy's intended reach. Those lacking a valid U.S. driver's license would be checked, Stewart said. "If we determine you are an illegal immigrant, we are going to do what we can to initiate deportation proceedings."

Yet the resolution appears to stop short of requiring that level of police scrutiny. It directs officers to check residency when probable cause is established and "when such inquiry will not expand the duration of the detention" -- language crafted to avoid conflict with Fourth Amendment protections against unlawful search and seizure. Sgt. Kim Chinn, a police spokeswoman, said the person would have to be under arrest, not simply pulled over for a traffic violation.

Hispanic business and community leaders in Prince William said they had been appearing this week on local Spanish-language radio stations to assuage panicked callers, urging them to focus on the resolution's details, rather than the anti-Hispanic message many heard.

"People should not be afraid," said Freddy Ventura, a Salvadoran-born businessman who runs a popular soccer league in the county. "I've got tons of people calling me, telling me they want to move. I told them there's nothing to be scared of. Show them you're not scared."

Others said they thought the week's events would produce a positive result by mobilizing Hispanics to participate in politics and take a critical look at conduct that fuels negative stereotypes about public drunkenness, littering and gangs.

"We have to learn the rules, learn how people live here," said businessman Carlos Castro. "There are certain misbehaviors that irritate a lot of people and we have to fix, but it's not fair for others to see us as a single group.

"In the end," he predicted, "I think it's going to have a positive effect on the community."

The resolution's effect on Hispanic communities has stretched well beyond Prince William.

"They're talking about this in Jefferson County, in Clarke, all the way to West Virginia," Adrian Escobar said in Spanish, sipping from a Big Gulp cup outside a pupusa kiosk on Route 1. He and his brother Antonio dashed across the border from Mexico nearly 15 years ago and have been in the United States illegally since. They live in Winchester and make $17 an hour as flagmen for a Virginia Department of Transportation subcontractor.

The Escobar brothers shrugged at all the fretting they'd been hearing from other Hispanics last week, including workers who commute to Prince William to do its grunt work. "Who else is going to pave the roads here?" Adrian asked, cracking up with laughter. "An American? Ha!"

Antonio said he wasn't fazed. "If you're afraid, they'll just intimidate you more," he said. Besides, he added, the brothers have a plan in case Prince William police and immigration officials send them home for a "free vacation" to their father's farm in Guanajuato.

"We'll be right back here in a month," Antonio said.

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