Fairfax Won't Join the Bandwagon

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Fairfax County's approach to illegal immigration is pretty straightforward: We are taking action when we find people behaving illegally, regardless of their immigration status. We are employing local resources in a strategic fashion to address illegal situations in our neighborhoods. Like others in the region, we are cooperating with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency (ICE), but we are doing so without the specter of racial profiling or inciting fear in our immigrant communities.

Of course all residents of our community and this country ought to be here legally. But the reality is that an estimated 12 million among us are not, and local governments cannot substitute themselves for what the courts have determined to be a federal responsibility.

We are focused on what we as local governments can control, and we are setting clear expectations for delivering results. What we will not do is posture for short-term political gains at the long-term expense of driving a wedge into our community, which cherishes its diversity.

Consider our accomplishments so far. Six years ago, 5.6 percent of our young people reported having some form of gang involvement. The county stepped in to provide after-school programs at every middle school and worked with our community partners to provide more constructive opportunities for our youth. Those efforts helped us cut that gang participation figure in half.

This spring I asked the Board of Supervisors to create a rapid-response strike team to crack down on property owners who were willfully violating the law to create illegal boardinghouses or commercial operations in our neighborhoods. So far, 36 cases have been resolved, 18 are in litigation and 128 are under investigation. We are restoring a sense of stability in communities that reported being overwhelmed by these illegal conditions.

Our public safety agencies routinely cooperate with ICE. The Office of the Sheriff, for example, reports as many as 50 illegal immigrants a month to ICE for follow-up action, and in the past fiscal year, the sheriff housed 338 illegal immigrants at the request of ICE. We now are looking to expand that partnership under the federal 287(g) program, with additional enforcement authority.

With respect to provision of services, we require proof of legal residence for numerous services including but not limited to housing assistance, food stamps, job training, home energy assistance, medical insurance and refugee resettlement. Some services, such as public education, have been exempted from inquiry by the U.S. Supreme Court, and, of course, our public safety responders are going to put lifesaving above all else.

This is a complex issue. Forty percent of Fairfax's population belongs to a minority group, and the numbers are equally strong in other parts of our region. As our minority population has tripled in the past quarter-century, we have become the economic engine of the commonwealth, with the nation's highest median income.

Our school system has become the envy of the nation, and our crime rate is the lowest among the nation's large jurisdictions. There should be no arguing that Fairfax County and this region have thrived because of that growing diversity.

We all can recognize the challenge posed by illegal immigration. However, we must not allow politicians to engage in the demagogic politics of fear and intimidation that have so divided us in Virginia's past.

-- Gerald E. Connolly


The writer is chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.

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