Pr. William Softens Policy on Immigration Status Checks

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 30, 2008

The Prince William County supervisors abolished a key part of the county's illegal-immigration policy last night by directing police officers to question criminal suspects about their immigration status only after they have been arrested.

In October, the Board of County Supervisors directed officers to check the legal status of crime suspects, no matter how minor the offense, if they think the person might be in the country unlawfully.

"The basic policy is fundamentally the same. We just changed the way it's implemented," Supervisor Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) said. "We want to give officers discretion in the field to use their judgment about when they ask and when they don't. This allows them to make their own call."

He said less-aggressive street enforcement limits the county's risk of a lawsuit.

Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said the change will not amount to any "appreciable difference in the number of people arrested."

"Every single person who is arrested will have their immigration status checked," he said. "Officers will continue to have the discretion to check the status of anyone detained by them, even for minor infractions."

The board unanimously supported changing course after slashing $3.1 million from its budget to install video cameras in police cars to enforce the county's illegal-immigration policy. Police said they needed cameras to protect officers from accusations of racial profiling.

The board's change in the immigration policy came before it considered the county budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The supervisors approved a fiscal 2009 budget of $893 million. That brings the property tax rate to 97 cents per $100 of assessed valuation, amounting to a 5 percent increase in the tax bill of the average homeowner.

The supervisors cut an additional $1.2 million in related police, foster care and protective services for the children of deported illegal immigrants last week. Other cuts included a reduction in proposed fire and rescue staffing.

Before the board's final vote, Stewart made a motion to add nearly $4 million to the budget, restoring funds for cameras and additional police staffing that were tentatively cut last week. He said he has received information that convinced him that the cameras are needed for the safety of the officers. His proposal failed on a split vote by the eight-member board.

"I have voted against every tax increase this board has put up," Stewart said before the board deadlocked on his motion. "This resolution is vitally important. It is making a difference, and long term it is going to save the residents of this county money. We need to do it right. We cannot leave our officers exposed."

Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) used the camera budget cut as a rationale for offering a proposal to change the policy the board approved in October. The proposed change would have directed officers to inquire about immigration status only after someone has been arrested and taken to jail. In a preliminary vote, Principi was the only supervisor to support his motion.

"Every dollar we spend checking immigration status on the street is one less dollar we can spend on our roads, schools and public safety," he said. "I ask my fellow board members to consider doing the right thing today by bringing tolerance to our community, stemming the long-term damage we have inflicted on our own economy and to move on to other, more important priorities facing us in Prince William County."

Police enforcement on the street underpins the illegal-immigration crackdown, which in addition to increasing law enforcement also denies certain services to illegal immigrants.

During the first month of the policy, 41 illegal immigrants were arrested. Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said most of the people arrested would have gone to jail anyway. All but two were charged with misdemeanors and felonies unrelated to their immigration status.

Principi questioned why the police need to check someone's immigration status on the street when it would be checked automatically once the person is brought to the jail under a federal policy that took effect in the summer. Under a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, jurisdictions can deputize local law enforcement officers to assist federal authorities in processing illegal immigrants.

"The debate turned on us," Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville) said. "Suddenly . . . having cameras matters. The perception is you start to lose credibility on your commitment to curb illegal immigration without them."

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