The Price of Hypocrisy

Monday, April 28, 2008

PRINCE WILLIAM County Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart, the top elected official in Virginia's second-largest county, huffed and puffed his way to electoral victory last year as the champion of tough measures against illegal immigrants. Now that he's safe and secure in office, Mr. Stewart, a Republican, has decided the policy he advocated so strenuously is well and good -- as long as the county doesn't have to pay for it.

Faced with a tight budget and rising property taxes, the county board, acting at Mr. Stewart's behest, slashed $3.1 million in enforcement funding for the crackdown on illegal immigrants. That was nearly half the $6.9 million budgeted to implement the measures in the first year alone. Bashing illegal immigrants on the campaign trail, and then refusing to pay up at budget season, struck even some board members who supported the crackdown as duplicitous. "That's the hypocrisy of the whole thing," said John D. Jenkins, a Democrat who's served on the county board for a quarter century. "If you do the dance, you have to pay the fiddler."

The heart of Prince William's new policy is a requirement that county police check the residency status of suspected criminals. To do that without exposing officers to allegations of racial profiling, the police chief, Charlie T. Deane, recommended that police patrol cars be equipped with video cameras to record arrests. The $3.1 million that the county board lopped from the enforcement budget was the price tag for those cameras and for monitoring the resulting footage. The cut leaves police officers, who have been stuck with implementing the crackdown, unprotected against likely lawsuits. Craig S. Gerhart, the county executive, warned that the board's move could prove penny-wise and pound-foolish in the event of generous jury verdicts in favor of suspects alleging they were profiled.

Over the next five years, Prince William's crackdown is expected to cost the county more than $26 million, which will translate into a further tax squeeze for residents. The most that can be said so far for the new measures is that they have forced some illegal immigrants to leave the county -- in some or many cases, no doubt, simply to settle in neighboring jurisdictions. There they are imposing new burdens on local school systems, as staff writer Amy Gardner reports in today's Post. At the same time, the crackdown's unexpectedly high cost has prompted the board to slash a key reserve fund in order to pay to house more illegal immigrants in the county jail. What a dubious achievement.

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