By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 21, 2008
When Chris Pannell walks down the Prince William County street she has called home for all of her 39 years, she's dismayed by what she sees -- vacant houses -- and delighted by what she says she doesn't see -- illegal immigrants.
"I will take coming down here and looking at 10 empty houses any day over what we had before," says Pannell, a title examiner, as she and her neighbor, Allison Kipp, 42, amble past lifeless houses.
This stretch of Lafayette Avenue in the Manassas area is a fairly gloomy scene. "For Sale" signs flap outside two of the 30 1960s-era red brick starter homes on the block. Eight others appear to be vacant. Few cars are parked on the street. The worn sidewalks are deserted.
But to Pannell and Kipp, it is a tableau of hope. And victory.
For much of the past decade, according to the women and other neighbors, parking was bumper-to-bumper and most of the empty houses were packed with Latino residents they believe were in the country illegally. Now Pannell and Kipp are convinced that Prince William's illegal-immigration crackdown, which both championed as first-time activists, has helped flush many of those people out of their neighborhood, West Gate.
The experiences that hardened their attitude and the relief they now feel have been voiced by many Prince William residents who bridled at the influx of immigrants, many of whom they suspected were here illegally, according to activist leaders.
"A year ago, it was common to have several overcrowded residences on every block around here," said Greg Letiecq, president of Help Save Manassas, an anti-illegal immigration group. "The turnaround has been dramatic. People started calling me and telling me, 'This overcrowded house is now vacant.' 'That overcrowded house is now vacant.' A lot of people prefer a quiet neighborhood and empty houses to overcrowded ones any day."
Prince William Board of County Supervisor John T. Stirrup Jr. (R-Gainesville), who represents West Gate, introduced the measures, which deny some services to illegal residents and require police to check the immigration status of suspects they believe are in the company illegally, after what he called an outcry from constituents. He said he now sees their worries being relieved.
"We're clearly getting reports on a regular basis from people who had seen the quality of life declining in the past," he said, "and now they are reporting back to say obviously this is working, this element has left the community."
People on both sides of Prince William's illegal-immigration debate say Latino immigrants are leaving the county. Evidence is anecdotal, and so far it is impossible to measure the migration or whether it is driven by tough laws, economic downturn or the wave of mortgage foreclosures. Yet where opponents of the crackdown predict the ruin of the county's finances and culture via mean-spirited policy, such supporters as Pannell and Kipp envision a neighborhood rebirth rooted in simple democracy.
"It really gave me faith in the American way, that we the American people can get out here, and our voices will prevail," said Pannell, who lives with her husband and three children in the house across the street from her childhood home, where her mother still lives. "I've never felt so passionate about anything. It's your neighborhood. It's your community."
The county's stance, said Kipp, a paralegal who has lived on nearby Loudoun Avenue half her life, "has given us faith in politicians."
Their logic rings hollow to critics of the policy, who say it has also scared away single-family immigrant households who contributed to their neighborhoods.
"The resolution was motivated by people who, as we have said all along, would like to see Prince William County much less diverse," said Nancy Lyall of the advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders. "It's shocking to me and many people that there are people in this community that would rather live next to a vacant house than next to a house with an immigrant family. That is a perfect example of the racism in this county."
Pannell and Kipp, who were strangers a year ago, scoff at the suggestion that they are racists and say most of those who left were not single families. As a light rain fell one spring afternoon, they strolled along Lafayette, smoking cigarettes and collecting the yellowed newspapers that dotted driveways. The women stopped in front of a house with a mailbox shaped like a barn. By Pannell's count (she says she zealously tracks the block's comings and goings), a family with six children and five single men lived there until vanishing nearly two months ago.
Next door was a foreclosed house that Pannell said was filled for a decade with Hispanic men who frequently spent afternoons drinking on the front stoop and in the beds of pickups. She said she witnessed several brawls and saw men urinate in the front yard at least 10 times over the years. The inhabitants disappeared more than three months ago, she said, "and that's a good thing."
Other residents, who are not activists, said they also felt relieved that the worst of street's overcrowding appears to have subsided.
Kipp and Pannell acknowledge that they have no proof that the houses' occupants were illegal immigrants or that the county's resolution drove them away. But as they see it, legal immigrants would not move in and out in the middle of the night and would respect laws, so they would not break zoning regulations prohibiting such things as over-occupancy and blocking driveways. They don't believe that the general mortgage problem is to blame, because if anyone could keep up with a mortgage, the women figure, it would be a house full of people paying a few hundred dollars each.
"I have no doubt in my mind that these houses that are overcrowded are full of illegal aliens," said Kipp, who lives in her childhood home with her husband and four of their five children. "None."
Their neighborhood is a collection of modest houses built from four models (two with a front steps, one with a porch, the other with columns) in one of the region's Zip codes hardest hit by foreclosures. As Pannell and Kipp walked along the street, five houses were in some stage of foreclosure, according to the research firm RealtyTrac.
Kipp and Pannell describe the West Gate of their youth in halcyon terms. Doors were left unlocked, and children played outside until the streetlights dimmed. But they say it was always open-minded . When an influx of Cambodian refugees arrived in the area in the late 1970s, neighborhood organizations held toy and clothing drives, they said. Kipp said her brother's best childhood friends were black. One of Pannell's favorite neighbors was a Guatemalan woman, who moved away two years ago.
"They were welcome and invited," Pannell said of the Cambodians. "That's not what's happening today."
Change came over the past decade, they and other neighbors said. Single families left, and into their homes moved what appeared to be various unrelated Latinos. People came and went at all hours. Trash piled up, and grass went uncut.
Back then, neither Kipp nor Pannell paid any attention to news or politics, they said. They say they figured the new neighbors were illegal immigrants, but they also assumed that police were checking immigration status.
Then last year, each heard about a Senate bill that would have led to the legalization of many immigrants. Enraged, Kipp skipped work to send a letter of protest to every member of Congress. Pannell also began writing.
They became friends at the county board meetings each began attending and speaking at last summer. Kipp and Pannell were thrilled when the county's illegal-immigration resolution passed in July, even as opponents warned that the policy would divide immigrant families.
"We don't worry about the family of someone who's robbed a bank," Kipp said. "They knew the consequences."
"They say we're breaking up families," Pannell said. "No, they are."
Now Pannell and Kipp take "field trips" around West Gate, snapping photos of suspected zoning violations, which they report to the county. They have been regulars at meetings of Help Save Manassas, whose members shared their sense of triumph at a recent gathering.
One woman reported that a Wal-Mart was "empty" post-crackdown. Another said she "actually got someone who speaks English" at a drive-through.
"We took what was an impossible task in so many people's eyes and within a period of a year fixed it," Letiecq told about 30 people at Manassas City Hall. Illegal immigrants, he said, are "getting the message, and they're leaving."
Some of those observations might boil down to perception. Kipp, Pannell and some of their neighbors cited drops in lines and Latinos at the Prince William Hospital emergency room and the neighborhood post office. Donna Ballou, a hospital spokeswoman, said traffic at the emergency room has remained steady. Patrick Murphy, a spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service, said the Manassas branch had reported no decline in customers or revenue.
Back on Lafayette, change is clear, even if the reasons behind it are not. Pannell and Kipp walked by a darkened house with a large addition off the back and a "For Sale" sign out front. It housed about a dozen people, Pannell said.
"They would play music so loud -- mariachi," Pannell said. So loud, she said, that it would trigger the car alarm of the longtime resident next door, who would let the alarm ring to annoy the mariachi listeners.
"This house I could write a book on," Pannell said wearily, approaching a white house a massive paved driveway, which she said was crammed with as many as 11 cars a few months back. "There could easily have been 25 people here at one time. All men. Not a child. Not a female."
Now it is for sale.
The women walked up Pannell's front path, past her burgundy sport-utility vehicle with the stickers reading "Sudley Springs, Virginia 20109 Is For Lovers" and "Where's the Fence?" Inside, Kipp sat on the living room carpet, while Pannell settled into the plush sofa.
They said they feel sure the county will recoup the cost of the crackdown through savings on social services and English instruction for immigrant children. Quality of life will improve, Pannell said, "and you can't put a price on that."
When Pannell looks out her window at the house next to her mother's, she said she sees the beginnings.
Before the house was foreclosed on in the summer, Pannell said, about 20 single men lived there, one of whom she said she saw urinate on the front lawn one Saturday afternoon three years ago as her daughter and stepdaughter played across the street.
Recently, a single man moved in. "An insurance agent," Pannell said approvingly. She and Kipp hope teachers and firefighters will follow.
"This was not an election-year gimmick. . . . This was us demanding," Kipp said. "You have to start small. And we knew we could do something here."
"It might not be the biggest or the best plan," Pannell said.
"But it's working," Kipp said.
"It's working," Pannell echoed.