Tipping Point For Outrage

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By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008

VIRGINIA BEACH

There have been no major flaps over day-labor sites here, or boiling controversies over immigrant boardinghouses or schools crowded with children who don't speak English.

But a group has formed to fight illegal immigration. Calls about the issue to the area's congresswoman have swelled. And Ray and Colette Tranchant want to sue the government over what they call its failure to enforce immigration laws.

The catalyst was a tragedy that roiled the Hampton Roads area and triggered stiffer local policies on illegal immigrants. In March 2007, the Tranchants' daughter Tessa, 16, and her best friend, Alison Kunhardt, 17, were killed in a car crash caused by a drunk driver who had a police record and was in the country illegally.

"What happened in Virginia Beach is they woke up Saturday morning and realized not only do illegal immigrants work in your town, live in your town, but they also kill people in your town," then-Del. John J. Welch III (R-Virginia Beach) told reporters at the time.

As national immigration politics increasingly become local and police reveal the legal status of more suspects, high-profile deaths caused by illegal immigrants are serving as powerful tipping points for community outrage. The tragedies often live on nationally as talking points for opponents of illegal immigration and as symbols on Web sites that list victims as if they were fallen soldiers in an invisible war.

To those activists, the cases are stark reminders of a broken immigration system. It's simple, they say: The victims would be alive if the borders were sealed.

"The people who are committing these crimes . . . they are here because the government failed to do what it was supposed to do to protect the American people," said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which promotes restrictions on immigration.

Immigrant advocates counter that focusing on legal status brands all immigrants, illegal and those who might be assumed to be illegal, as villains, stoking misdirected tensions out of grief. In Hampton Roads, advocates say they are fielding calls from immigrants worried about deportation and discrimination.

"Each of those individual circumstances are tragic. But the effect that some of these groups are trying to achieve is to demonize," said Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza. "They're very clearly manipulating these individual cases to try to smear a whole community."

Because policies on checking the legal status of suspects vary among law enforcement agencies and Census Bureau questionnaires do not ask about it, there are no solid national statistics on crime rates among illegal immigrants.

In recent months, fatal car crashes alleged to have been caused by illegal immigrants have sparked ire in small towns in Minnesota and Iowa. Two years ago, the deaths of a Maryland Marine and his girlfriend in a collision caused by an illegal immigrant ignited debate in Annapolis over driver's licenses for unauthorized immigrants. In Pennsylvania, the mayor of Hazleton has said a 2006 slaying attributed to an illegal immigrant led to a controversial immigration ordinance. Charges against the suspect were later dropped, and the measure was struck down by a federal judge.


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