Judge Dismisses Suit On Illegal Immigration

By Jerry Markon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 1, 2007

A federal judge yesterday dismissed a lawsuit challenging Prince William County's closely watched crackdown on illegal immigration, but the ruling leaves open the possibility that attorneys could file a similar suit with a different set of plaintiffs, lawyers said.

U.S. District Judge James C. Cacheris threw out the lawsuit because the 22 plaintiffs lacked legal standing to file it, according to a docket entry filed in U.S. District Court in Alexandria. The judge has not issued a written opinion. But Cacheris specified that his ruling was not based on the merits of the case. Lawyers on both sides said that means another constitutional challenge could be filed.

Prince William's crackdown on illegal immigration, which requires police to check the immigration status of people in custody, has attracted national attention and has placed the county at the forefront of a nationwide debate.

The lawsuit's plaintiffs have argued that the measure violates federal law. Christina Guerola Sarchio, an attorney for the plaintiffs, who included four illegal immigrants, said she was disappointed by the decision but will search for people more directly affected by the controversial resolution passed by the Prince William supervisors in July.

"This is a case where there's a constitutional violation waiting to happen, so now we need to find individuals adversely affected by this resolution," Sarchio said. "We're not treating this as a defeat in any way, nor should the county treat it as a victory."

Corey A. Stewart, the Board of County Supervisors chairman who has championed the immigration crackdown, yesterday said the resolution "withstood its first test. If the best litigators in the country couldn't successfully challenge it, I don't think anyone could."

Yet the county is prepared for further challenges once it begins enforcing the measure, Stewart said. "We know we are going to be under such close scrutiny," he said. "We are going to be extra careful to be sure everyone involved with the enforcement of the resolution is properly trained and it is enforced without any racial profiling or other discriminatory behavior."

Although Cacheris did not explain his reasoning when he dismissed the lawsuit from the bench during a hearing yesterday, he had earlier asked Sarchio whether any of the plaintiffs had been stopped by police and questioned about their immigration status since the resolution passed. Sarchio said she answered no.

Lawyers on both sides said the query appeared to indicate that the judge had accepted a prime county argument against the lawsuit: that none of the plaintiffs had been directly "injured" by the resolution. In court papers filed last month, county attorneys also argued that the case should be thrown out because the county broke no laws and is not targeting anyone for discrimination.

The July resolution outlined a policy under which officers would check the immigration status of anyone in police custody who they had probable cause to believe is an illegal immigrant. It also asked county employees to look for ways to lawfully deny services to illegal immigrants.

In October, at a meeting attended by more than 1,200 people, the county board voted unanimously to proceed with the police crackdown and to cut off certain services to illegal immigrants who are homeless, elderly or addicted to drugs. Under the new rules, officers are supposed to cooperate more closely with federal immigration authorities. Police have said the measure will not be enforced until officers are trained in determining legal status.

The lawsuit, filed by a Washington law firm and two civil rights organizations, said the crackdown is instilling fear throughout the county and is causing immigrants to leave Prince William. But the county has called that contention an overreaction not merited by the language of the July resolution.

Staff writer Kristen Mack contributed to this report.

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