By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
The Arlington County Board yesterday strongly rebuked elected officials elsewhere in Northern Virginia who are clamping down on illegal immigrants, saying such efforts are "politically inspired," "irresponsible" and "punitive."
The five board members, all Democrats, unanimously backed a resolution calling on elected officials elsewhere to "promote the integration of immigrants" instead of enacting rules they said would be divisive.
They said the county will continue to prosecute illegal immigrants who commit crimes and report them to federal officials, but in a way that treats "all of its residents . . . with human dignity and respect."
The Arlington officials said the county will take no actions that might discourage immigrants from reporting crimes to the police, such as requiring officers to check the immigration status of every person with whom they come into contact. They also said the county will not cut public health services for immigrants, which officials said could cause disease to spread. They said they will not restrict education programs because children of illegal immigrants are likely to remain in the United States and it therefore makes better sense to help them be able to earn a good living.
"We will not engage in divisive tactics," said the board's vice chairman, J. Walter Tejada, a naturalized citizen who was born in El Salvador. "I was never more proud to be an Arlingtonian than I am today."
The regionwide debate over illegal immigration came to Arlington early this month. At a Saturday board meeting, local Republican officials posed pointed questions to the board about the extent of crime being committed by illegal immigrants and whether officials were requiring the police to report such crime to federal immigration officials. They also questioned whether it is appropriate for Arlington's day-laborer center to serve workers who are in the country illegally.
Board members responded by saying that the county's crime rate has reached a record low even as the community has become more diverse.
In some areas, politicians have been swept to victory by attacking their opponents as lenient toward illegal immigrants in giving them health services, education or employment assistance. In Herndon, for example, supporters of a day-laborer center were defeated last year, and the center was shut down last week.
In Prince William County, a proposed police policy would require officers to check the immigration status of anyone arrested for traffic violations, shoplifting or other misdemeanors. Manassas Park recently canceled a Latino festival that had cost $30,000, some of which had come from city money.
After many years in which relaxed immigration policies were favored by Republicans and Democrats, taking a stand in favor of immigrants now requires some political courage. Tejada is facing reelection, and Paul Ferguson, the board's chairman, is hoping to be elected clerk of the court. Both have challengers in the Nov. 6 election.
Arlington officials criticized the federal government yesterday for what they called its failure to enact fair immigration laws and enforce them appropriately, saying government incompetence on that front has thrown the issue into the laps of local governments.
The federal government "has been incredibly inefficient in border security," said board member Jay Fisette (D), and the result is that "many ills in the community" are being blamed on immigrants.
Only a few people were in the audience to hear the board members' resolution, and most of them applauded.
Among the supporters was Enrique Escorza, the consul general of the Mexican Embassy, who was sitting near the front of the room.
"The signal we are receiving here is very important," Escorza said. "Listening to a very responsive county board like Arlington is very gratifying."