Latinos Looking Over Shoulder

By Pamela Constable and Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Work-van drivers signaled long before their turns to avoid being pulled over for a traffic violation. Day laborers skipped their early morning coffee at 7-Eleven, and merengue tunes played to empty tables at Latino lunch counters across Prince William County yesterday.

It was the first day of a county ordinance that allows police to check people's immigration status for even minor legal infractions.

Police officials pledged to enforce the law fairly and to not stop and question individuals based on their racial or ethnic appearance, but many Hispanic residents said they feared they would be stopped without reason and deported for such violations as driving without a valid license or having a broken taillight.

"Already the rumors are starting," said Rene Cabrera, a legal resident from El Salvador who works at a market in Manassas. "My friend saw four patrol cars outside a shopping mall and thought it was a raid. Instead of going to the store, he stayed in his car and drove away. I really worry this can create chaos."

Immigrant advocate groups, speaking at a community meeting Sunday in Woodbridge and on local Spanish-language radio stations, have been advising immigrants without legal papers to keep a low profile and obey all traffic rules. If stopped by police, the groups said, they should be polite and show some identification but otherwise remain silent until they can see a lawyer.

"We are telling people to drive perfectly, not to spit or jaywalk, and not to carry anything in a brown paper bag," said Nancy Lyhall, a volunteer with the local pro-immigrant group Mexicans Without Borders. "They should be the model of model citizens."

County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane, speaking to reporters yesterday, said that his officers would "continue to enforce the law in a fair, lawful and reasonable manner" and that they have been trained "very carefully" to conduct immigration checks. The new measures are expected to cost $26 million over five years, and Deane has asked county officials for an additional $3 million to install video cameras in every patrol car and monitor them to ensure proper procedures are followed.

"Those who are suspected of breaking the law -- even traffic violations -- will be screened if the officer has probable cause to believe the suspect is in the country illegally," Deane said. If the driver lacks a valid U.S. license, it's much more likely now that police will notify federal immigration officials. "The officer will have to make the determination on a case-by-case basis," he said.

Legal and illegal immigrants yesterday expressed the belief -- some with sadness, others with indignation -- that the law is part of a larger effort to drive Hispanics out of the county. Santos Perdomo, 38, a legal resident who owns a business and two houses in Prince William, said he had always donated to the county police charity fund. Now, he said, he no longer feels like giving.

"Even though I am legal, I feel rejected," he said. "This law has ruined all the good feelings. When I came here 12 years ago, my neighbors sent me pies. Now they look at me differently."

Perdomo said that many Hispanics are leaving the county but that he plans to stay. "I don't want to teach my children to be bitter," he said.

Juan Hernandez, 32, an illegal immigrant from Guatemala who works as a carpenter in Manassas, said he has stopped driving and now only walks, as fast as he can, between his apartment and his job site.

"I have three kids back home, so I have to keep working," he said, munching on an enchilada at an otherwise empty Central American cafe. "I was afraid walking to this place today, but I thought, I am a good person, I don't steal or drink, so God will watch over me."

Despite police assurances that they will not use the new law to target Hispanics, immigrant advocates said they believe this is already happening. Ricardo Juarez, a Woodbridge resident who is coordinator of Mexicans Without Borders, said he was stopped by a police officer last week who said he had failed to signal a turn and then asked to see his license.

"I had been very careful to signal because I saw he was following me," Juarez said yesterday. "They say this will not be a witch hunt, but we think it will be a silent and gradual witch hunt.

"After all this money and training, they are not going to want the officers to come back empty-handed."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company