Lawsuit Targets Prince William

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 11, 2007

Civil rights groups filed a lawsuit yesterday targeting Prince William County's closely watched crackdown on illegal immigration, arguing that a measure ordering police to check the immigration status of people in custody violates federal law.

The lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, asks a judge to declare unconstitutional a controversial resolution that the Prince William supervisors passed in July. Before the largest crowd to attend a board meeting in two decades, the supervisors heightened immigration enforcement by local police and attempted to curb public services for illegal immigrants.

Although the enforcement efforts have not taken effect and supervisors have thus far declined to fund them, plaintiffs said yesterday that the resolution is having a dramatic effect throughout the county. The lawsuit was filed by a Washington law firm and two civil rights organizations on behalf of 22 plaintiffs. It names the county, the Prince William police chief, the county executive and the members of the board.

"This is instilling fear, it's causing racial divisions and it's making our community a place that is uninhabitable for people of color," said Nancy Lyall, a spokeswoman for the Woodbridge Workers Committee, one of the plaintiffs. Plaintiffs and their attorneys said the resolution has heightened discrimination against Hispanics and other immigrants.

Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, said the resolution was "crafted very carefully, and we are confident it will withstand this and any other legal challenge." He accused the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, one of the organizations that filed the lawsuit, of threatening county officials with a legal challenge before the resolution was passed.

"They are trying to intimidate the county from upholding the law, and I am not going to back down from those threats," Stewart (R-At Large) said. "No one is going to threaten Prince William County and get us to back down from doing the right thing."

Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane and County Executive Craig S. Gerhart declined to comment.

Cesar A. Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, said he was simply alerting Stewart that a lawsuit was coming. "It was not a threat," he said. "He is not upholding the law. The fact is, he is being lawless."

Prince William's crackdown on illegal immigration has attracted national attention and has placed the county at the forefront of Virginia jurisdictions -- including Loudoun County -- that are trying to curb it. The July resolution, a weakened version of a previous proposal, directed Prince William officers to check the immigration status of anyone in police custody who they have probable cause to believe is an illegal immigrant. It also asked county employees to look for ways to lawfully deny services to illegal immigrants.

Last week, the county slowed the crackdown, declining to fund the police policy because of budget constraints and postponing a vote on proposals to deny county services to illegal immigrants. But the supervisors voted to approve the new police procedures and increase cooperation with federal immigration agents for processing adult and juvenile suspects. They are expected to revisit funding at their meeting Tuesday.

Christina Guerola Sarchio, an attorney for the plaintiffs, said that the resolution violates the Constitution and that "people wanted to stand up and fight it." The other 21 plaintiffs include four illegal immigrants.

Staff writers Nick Miroff and Theresa Vargas contributed to this report.

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