The Lives Behind Immigrant Lawsuit

By Theresa Vargas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 14, 2007

The federal lawsuit filed this past week against Prince William County paints a broad picture of those who believe they will be affected by the crackdown on illegal immigration.

The 22 plaintiffs are a mix of identified and unidentified men, women and children who live or work in the county. Their legal status runs the spectrum.

"They all have a different set of circumstances, different situations, and I think it speaks to what is so complicated about this issue," said Cesar Perales, president of the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund. "I don't think the American public understands that so many of the undocumented are members of what I would call mixed families in that many of them might have U.S.-born children, many of them are married to U.S. citizens. Others are married to permanent residents. You may have brothers and sisters with different immigration status."

The fund is one of the groups that filed the suit Wednesday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, asking a judge to declare Prince William's illegal-immigration measures unconstitutional. A July resolution directed county 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.

"On its face, the Resolution is a poor attempt by the County Board to circumvent federal law and regulate immigration according to its own rules," the suit says.

Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Board of County Supervisors, said when the suit was filed that the resolution was "crafted very carefully, and we are confident it will withstand this and any other legal challenge."

The board is set to vote on the measure Tuesday.

Some of the plaintiffs approached Perales at a recent rally in Manassas, and others called his office later, he said. Still others contacted the other two groups that filed the suit: the Washington Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights and Urban Affairs and the Washington law firm Howrey LLP.

Some plaintiffs are unidentified, Perales said, because "we want their story to be told but at the same time they need protection" because of their undocumented status.

Two of the unidentified plaintiffs are women who have pending applications for residency based on spousal abuse, the suit says. One is listed as Jane Roe 1. This is what is known about her according to the lawsuit:

A native of Guatemala, Jane Roe 1 was petitioning for lawful status through her husband, a U.S. citizen with whom she has a 3-year-old son. But after her husband began physically abusing her and threatened to withdraw himself as her sponsor, she submitted an application for immigration status based on spousal abuse. While that application is pending, she will not have documents to confirm that she is entitled to stay in the United States if questioned by police or other county officials, the suit says.

One woman, a 26-year-old who works in real estate and volunteers for a nonprofit organization, has lived in the county since she was 9. She is undocumented. Since the resolution passed, the suit says, "she no longer enjoys traveling through the county, visiting the area shopping mall, or shopping at the grocery store because she is afraid that she and her family will be targeted by the police or by anti-immigrant members of the community." She and her husband, who is also undocumented, have a 5-year-old and a 9-year-old who are U.S. citizens, ages 5 and 9. The children live in "constant fear of sudden or forced separation from their parents," the suit says.

Rubin Ochoa Contreras is among several plaintiffs who are identified. A native of Venezuela, he received his permanent residency in February after living in the United States for eight years. He attends English classes at night but fears that because his English is not proficient, he may "not be able to effectively communicate with officers or other county employees and, accordingly, may be needlessly, unlawfully detained or denied benefits or services to which he is entitled."

Tulio Diaz was born in Puerto Rico and has lived in the county for 35 years. As a U.S. citizen, he is not required to carry proof of his legal status, but the suit says that because of the resolution, he now fears he will be asked to show proof "due to his race, color and ethnicity."

Plaintiff Yolanda Lemus of El Salvador, a naturalized U.S. citizen, has the same fears, according the suit. So does Lisandro Vigil of El Salvador, who was granted temporary protected status by the federal government.

Hugo Giron, who was also granted temporary permanent status and authorization to work, has a young son who is a U.S. citizen. Since the resolution passed, Giron has lost immigrant clients at his landscaping business and immigrant tenants from properties he owns in the county, the suits says.

"Plaintiff Giron's quality of life has deteriorated since the passage of the resolution," the suit says. "Plaintiff Giron feels that residents of Prince William County have grown antagonistic and unwelcoming toward him and his son."

Another plaintiff is the Woodbridge Workers Committee, which consists of hundreds of immigrant day laborers and community volunteers.

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