Immigration Fight Has a New Target

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

When Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart dressed down the police chief for hosting a public meeting with the Mexican consul to discuss the county's controversial immigration policy, Elena Schlossberg-Kunkel was appalled.

Schlossberg-Kunkel, a Haymarket activist who had supported Stewart since 2006, and several other county residents showed up at a recent board meeting and demanded Stewart apologize to Chief Charlie T. Deane. Her voice pleading, Schlossberg-Kunkel admonished Stewart for his harsh rhetoric on immigration, which she said threatened to ruin the county's reputation.

"You were in my home for a fundraiser. I felt like I knew you," she said. "I don't know the person you are anymore, Corey."

She is not alone in her concern. Elected officials and business leaders in Prince William say they are worried that the county's focus on illegal immigration is hurting Prince William's image at a critical time in its growth and effort to remake itself.

Virginia's second-largest county had been known for years as a center of cheap housing and bargain shopping. But in recent years, Prince William leaders have tried to change course by attracting high-tech employers, building luxury homes and supporting good schools much as neighboring Loudoun and Fairfax counties have done.

Now, several supervisors in both parties and business leaders said, those efforts could be set back if county officials do not shift their focus from illegal immigration, which has divided the community and brought Prince William negative national exposure. ("The Road to Dystopia," one newspaper said of the crackdown.)

After a bitter, months-long debate, the eight-member board voted unanimously in the fall to increase law enforcement and deny some services to illegal immigrants. Although no one wants to repeal the policy, some supervisors and other officials said they wish the county -- especially Stewart -- would stop dwelling on it.

County business leaders have created "image committees" to examine the direction Prince William is heading. Now, some analysts said, the economic downturn makes it a bad time to carry out the immigration measures.

"It undermines the image of the county as a good place to invest," said Stephen Fuller, director of the Center for Regional Analysis at George Mason University. "The political environment has made people feel unwelcome."

Richard L. Hendershot, who chairs the Prince William County Greater Manassas Chamber of Commerce, said it has been hard to sell Prince William as progressive, dynamic and thriving.

"There's been a challenge. The only way that we can counteract the image, and I'd say it is a false image, is to continue to look for opportunities to share the positive messages of the county," he said. "There's clearly been some controversy over the immigration stance that the board of supervisors has taken."

Many blame Stewart (R), who put the county on the map nationally for its tough approach on illegal immigration. As the top elected official, Stewart is the most visible face of the county and nominally its biggest cheerleader. But his colleagues and some residents are starting to question his leadership.

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