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Pr. William Religious Leaders Say Crackdown Is Divisive

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 3, 2008

More than 50 religious leaders have sent a letter to Prince William County's elected officials saying the county's illegal-immigration crackdown has divided the community and created an "unwelcoming spirit."

The 58 leaders of Prince William congregations who signed the letter offered to "work constructively" with county officials and urged them to respond to public concern with legislation that upholds "the dignity and rights of all people."

"It's an invitation to elected officials to be part of a greater conversation," said the Rev. Jeff Carter of the Manassas Church of the Brethren. "It's an offer for some help in mediating and moderating this dialogue."

Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the board of county supervisors, called the group illegitimate and misguided.

"We don't need them as an intermediary," he said. "They need to do what they do best: serve their congregants and attend to their denominations and not get involved in partisan politics."

The religious leaders have been meeting since September, a month before supervisors approved a resolution to increase police enforcement of immigration laws and deny some services to undocumented immigrants. The group, which represents 25 houses of worship and 10 denominations, spent several months crafting a collaborative response.

The leaders sent the letter to county supervisors and members of the Manassas and Manassas Park city councils last week.

"The debate continues to focus on broad fears and assumptions concerning the complex issue of immigration and is made even more complex by less tangible aspects such as racial differences, community identity, and unrealistic assumptions pertaining to the reach of current immigration laws," the letter says.

It cites Scripture, which the leaders say should guide the way people live. One passage from Leviticus, in the Old Testament, says: "When an alien resides with you in your land, you shall not oppress the alien. The alien who resides with you shall be to you as the native among you; you shall love the alien as yourself."

Carter said the group has not heard back from county officials. Stewart said he doesn't intend to respond.

"They need to think this through more carefully. Tolerance of illegal activity is not a virtue," Stewart said. "If anyone is dividing the community, it is illegal immigrants. We are simply enforcing the law."

If a conversation needs to be had, Stewart said, it is between elected officials and the Latino community.

Carter would not comment on the resolution specifically. Instead, he focused on the atmosphere the resolution has created.

"We wanted to think creatively how the religious community could be of help," he said. "It's a first step. We'd like to be part of a solution to bring healing to our community."

Tomorrow, the seven officers with the county's new Criminal Alien Unit will start four weeks of training in federal immigration law in Frederick. The county board is scheduled to receive an update Tuesday on the implementation of federal immigration laws at its adult detention center. Police Chief Charlie T. Deane also is scheduled to brief the board.

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