Pr. William Hearing Mixes Passion, Political Claptrap

By Marc Fisher
Thursday, October 18, 2007

Outside the Prince William County government complex, hundreds of Hispanic immigrants faced off against dozens of native residents in angry exchanges of contemptuous glances. When they did speak, it was in different languages.

Inside the packed chambers where county supervisors held a marathon session known beautifully as Citizens' Time, the emotions were strong but more controlled. The reigning rhetorical device was pleading. Still, even when both sides spoke English, even when both sought to underscore their basic humanity, the divide was deep; the antagonism, palpable.

For nearly 12 hours Tuesday into Wednesday, before supervisors voted unanimously to cut off services to illegal immigrants in every way they could legally get away with, immigrants begged to be considered equals who have a right to be here simply because they are here.

"Thanks to our community, Prince William has been growing," said Elisabeth Gonzalez, a native of Puerto Rico who is married to a Guatemalan immigrant. She stood outside for most of the day, watching her two American-born sons ("They're 100 percent American, but they're still Latinos first," their mother said) wave signs and join in chants of "Together, we can do it" and "Yes, we can" -- in Spanish.

When Gonzalez got her three minutes before the board, she took a hard stand for the rights of immigrants, legal or not. Immigrant labor built the county, she said, and the county should embrace its new residents, not ostracize them: "We're not terrorists. We're human beings like you."

Outside, Gonzalez told me she hires illegal immigrants in her landscaping business because "they're good workers. I agree we don't want bad Latinos here. But there are also a lot of good Latinos. I'm only here to work and make money. I go to Guatemala for a month each year, and that's my peace. But we do pay taxes. We're making this county rich, so it's our county, too."

Fifty feet away stood Awad Farah -- an immigrant (and now a U.S. citizen) from Sudan, an employer of illegal immigrants ("It's not my job to ask"), a contractor who made it by feeding the growth that has so many Prince William residents worried about overcrowding and diminished services.

But while Gonzalez wore the green T-shirt of those supporting illegal immigrants, Farah wore the red sticker of "Help Save Manassas," the grass-roots group that advocated for a crackdown on illegals.

"The illegal immigrant is draining the system," he said. "Because of them, our chance for my people to come to this country legally is shrinking. Look, everybody is looking for a better life, but not everybody can come here. There are rules. Because of those people, I have to send my kids to private school -- $13,000 a year. I don't have health insurance. I pay my taxes, and the hospitals are overcrowded because of them."

Inside, the county's highest official, board Chairman Corey Stewart (whose campaign billboards make but one claim on his behalf -- "Fighting Illegal Immigration") listed some ills caused by those he wants to deport: crowded emergency rooms, jammed prisons, dangerous gangs, houses that morph into boarding facilities.

It was Stewart who insisted this vote take place before Election Day. And it was Stewart who explained that despite visions of mass deportations, "the most significant service the county is going to deny is business licenses."

Federal law prohibits excluding illegal immigrants from schools and medical care. The law already denies illegal residents services such as food stamps and welfare benefits. So the county is left with a short menu of smaller services it will now withhold: substance abuse counseling, drug trafficking prevention programs, recreation and day care for seniors, and business licenses.

The primary impact of the crackdown, then, will be to drive the illegal population even further underground -- a point Prince William's police chief made when he warned that illegal immigrants would become loath to report abuse, rape and other crimes for fear that any contact with police would lead to deportation.

But there was little talk of particulars as hundreds took their three minutes. This, to Prince William's great credit, was a real, honest, old-fashioned hearing in which everyone got to hear each other. Lately, governments in Fairfax, the District and Maryland have turned to cynical tricks to diffuse and defuse citizens' voices: "breakout groups" and "town hall" sessions in which the public is shunted to little tables and forced to talk to hired consultants rather than elected officials.

At this hearing, there were hundreds of Lucys -- righteous, loud, cocksure -- and precious few Charlie Browns. But there were some; after all, in a recent Washington Post poll of Virginia residents, only 7 percent said illegal immigration is the biggest issue facing the state -- far fewer than mentioned traffic, jobs or schools.

Scott Clark, a defense contractor from Woodbridge, won rapt attention when he described "the Irish and the Italians who came here long ago. The Italians were called wops -- 'without papers.' They were undocumented. A lot of you wouldn't be here if we'd enforced the laws then. Yes, there are problems, but it's not at this level. Better you should push back against the federal government. Make them do what they're supposed to and control the border. Yes, we need English as the primary language. Do that through assimilation. Teach the immigrants how a neighborhood should look."

Clark had never spoken to a government board before. He came because "I just got tired of hearing all this. The people that aren't talking are the silent majority who don't have a problem with illegal immigrants unless they commit a crime. People are angry because of 9/11, and they're crossing wires. Give us a stronger border, but don't polarize the community like this."

As compelling as Clark's message was, it slipped into the stream of words -- the immigrant women who asked the politicians to feel their hands, hardened by hours of scrubbing Americans' floors; the longtime residents who begged to be given back the quiet and security for which they first moved to the county.

And in the small of the night, the politicians did what they do. They voted in unanimous cowardice to take a stand full of sound and fury, creating policy that will frighten many, salve a few and accomplish nothing. Election Day is 19 days away.

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