Conservatives Clash at Briefing on Pr. William Crackdown

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, December 15, 2007

The chairman of a federal civil rights panel clashed yesterday with Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart over the recent crackdown on illegal immigrants approved by the board.

Linda Chavez, a conservative commentator who heads a U.S. Commission on Civil Rights panel examining whether the crackdown violates federal antidiscrimination laws, said she believed the supervisors based their action largely on anecdotal evidence of problems caused by illegal immigrants.

"Watching this, it seemed like there was little fact-finding prior to the board's consideration of this resolution. You seemed to have made up your minds [in advance]," Chavez said. "I'm talking about empirical evidence, not how people are feeling."

Stewart (R-At Large), who led the effort to curtail some county services, accused Chavez of having a "clear past and agenda here." Chavez withdrew her nomination as U.S. secretary of labor in 2001 when reports surfaced that she had employed an illegal immigrant. She said the undocumented Guatemalan woman living in her home was not an employee, but she withdrew to avoid embarrassing President Bush.

"We've found it difficult to quantify the problem," Stewart said of the cost and impact of illegal immigration on the county. "But that doesn't mean it's not a problem."

The county did look at the impact of illegal immigration on the community, Stewart said, citing crime, residential overcrowding and increased use of hospital emergency rooms. Chavez called that anecdotal.

Later, in an interview, Stewart called Chavez "an illegal immigrant apologist."

Chavez countered that Stewart is trying to make the debate personal. "I favor a generous legal immigration program. Our current system is not well suited to our economic needs. You could solve the problem tomorrow if you increase the number of people who you allow to come to this country legally. I don't think that makes me an apologist."

Chavez is co-chairman of the immigration subcommittee of the Virginia state advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. The panel came to Prince William to hear from lawyers, demographers, public officials and immigration rights advocates. Within the next year the subcommittee plans to issue a report to the state advisory committee, which will determine whether to make recommendations to the commission.

In October, the board unanimously approved a resolution to curtail services it can legally withhold, including programs for substance abuse, homelessness and older residents. Within months, police officers will begin checking the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law, whether for speeding or shoplifting, if they think that person is in the country illegally.

Because the panel restricted testimony to invited officials, some people on different sides of the issue who attended lamented not having an opportunity to be heard.

"Citizens' input seems to be marginalized," said Donna Widawski of Haymarket, who supports the county's crackdown. "What I saw was a predetermined agenda that would favor those who support illegal immigrants."

Outside the county government complex where the hearing was conducted, two men held a spray-painted banner that read: "The US Civil Rights Commission only invited its friends, racists and oppressors, to this meeting. Hispanic voices don't count."

Ricardo Juarez, coordinator of Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, or Mexicans Without Borders, said, "I appreciate that the commission is here today and they are paying attention, but they did not invite one Latino person here to testify. Those are the people who will be affected."

Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at the New York University School of Law, addressed potential legal concerns stemming from the county's policy.

"We don't know today whether these laws will stand tests," Chishti said. "Even if it's lawful to do this, to ban people from certain public services, issues of cost are playing a significant issue."

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