By Amy Gardner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, April 28, 2008
Hundreds of foreign-born families have pulled their children from Prince William County public schools and enrolled them in nearby Fairfax County, Arlington County and Alexandria since the start of the school year, imposing a new financial burden on those inner suburbs in a time of lean budgets.
The school-to-school migration within Northern Virginia started just as Prince William began implementing rules to deny some services to illegal immigrants and require police to check the immigration status of crime suspects thought to be in the country illegally.
Opponents of the rules say they have had a chilling effect on Prince William's once-thriving Latino community, prompting even legal immigrants to flee a hostile environment. Supporters say the rules have done what they were supposed to by primarily pushing illegal immigrants out.
"The resolution is clearly working," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. "It is driving down the non-English-speaking portion of the schools and saving us millions of dollars. They're going to other jurisdictions and costing them money."
Stewart called those jurisdictions "sanctuary" cities and counties, saying illegal immigrants are welcome there. He added: "There is going to be pressure to enact similar resolutions in those neighboring cities and counties." Officials from those jurisdictions reject that assertion.
Until now, the evidence of a migration has been largely anecdotal, making it difficult to measure or trace its causes. Data from school systems, however, provide the most concrete evidence to date that a significant exodus of immigrants is underway -- and that most of those leaving are settling in neighboring communities.
According to the Prince William school system, enrollment in the English for speakers of other languages, or ESOL, program dropped by 759 between September and March 31. It was the first known instance of a decline in ESOL students, said Irene Cromer, a schools spokeswoman.
During that period, 623 ESOL students from Prince William enrolled in Fairfax schools, compared with 241 in the same period the previous year. Eighty-three enrolled in Arlington, and 75 signed up in Alexandria, the latter up from 10.
Twenty-three ESOL students from Prince William enrolled in Loudoun County, officials there said.
School officials in Fairfax and Arlington said the new students are scattered across a number of schools, minimizing their effect on programs and budgets. In Fairfax, for example, a net increase of about 400 students isn't so dramatic when measured against the county's overall ESOL population of more than 21,000 students.
"We get about 6,000 new language-minority students a year," said Teddi Predaris, director of Fairfax's Office of ESOL Services. "An increase of 400 is noticeable, but what adjective you put in front of it depends on your perspective."
Still, Stewart noted that Prince William's schools expect to save $6 million in education costs as a result of the exodus -- a cost that will be borne by the other communities. Some officials in Fairfax and elsewhere say they expect the numbers to climb in the next academic year.
"The combination of what's happening in Prince William and our own budget concerns increases anxiety across the system," said Deirdre Lavery, principal of Glasgow Middle School in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, where 14 students transferred from Prince William this school year.
The transfers come as most local governments are strapped for revenue because of the sagging real estate market.
Local leaders outside Prince William rejected Stewart's assertion that the exodus will increase political pressure to crack down on illegal immigrants. Fairfax leaders recently increased funding for the Enhanced Code Enforcement Strike Team, intended to combat property blight and crowding, which some residents have blamed on immigrants. Leaders have been careful to "focus on behavior and not demonize categories of people," said Gerald E. Connolly (D), chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors.
"It's silly for Mr. Stewart to refer to any jurisdiction as a 'sanctuary county,' " Connolly said. "That's just inflammatory and demagogic."
Immigration advocates also disputed Stewart's claim that those leaving Prince William are primarily illegal immigrants.
"The majority of our families here were mixed-status families," said Nancy Lyall, a volunteer with Mexicans Without Borders. "You're forcing the legal residents to leave the county as well. And, of course, many of the children are legal as well, and they're being forced to leave, too."
Still, the Prince William migration could place further pressure on Fairfax's code enforcement efforts. It is a reversal of the trend of immigrants moving to Prince William to find affordable housing. Their return to the inner suburbs could lead to more instances of the kind of crowding that officials are seeking to halt.
Arlington's Randolph Elementary School, for instance, "has gotten back" some of the very Latino students whose families had moved away, Superintendent Robert G. Smith said. Smith said his schools are able to absorb the students for now, like Fairfax.
But he urged the State Board of Education, which asked the school systems in March to measure the Prince William exodus, to consider helping schools pay for the new students.
"We don't have an offer of help at this point, but I would certainly welcome it," Smith said.
Staff writer Michael Alison Chandler contributed to this report.