By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 5, 2008
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.
The stories of such victims are immortalized on Web sites such as http://immigrationshumancost.org, run by Brenda Walker, a Berkeley, Calif., writer who initially took up the immigration issue out of concern over the environmental impact of population growth.
"I was seeing all these articles in the press about 'Oh, poor Juan, he comes here and he's struggling for a better life,' " said Walker, adding that she favors limits on immigration. "But illegal immigration is not a victimless crime. That's my big headline."
The FIRE Coalition, a national group formed to combat what it calls "the largest invasion in the history of the world," goes further. As part of a project called Operation Body Count, it distributes posters featuring photos of people it says were killed by illegal immigrants.
Ray Tranchant has seen his daughter's picture on such sites. He said groups that call for measures such as mass deportations "muck up the real solution," which he said involves building a border fence, deporting criminals and giving noncriminals an earned path to legalization. But he knows the power of cases such as that of Tessa and Alison. It turned him into an activist.
"Tessa shouldn't have died," said Tranchant, 53, a Tidewater Community College administrator. "The bottom line is someone ended up in a place that caused deaths. How did he get here? Track it back: Lax here, lax there."
Tranchant, who is a member of a state task force on "alien criminals," said he is angry only at authorities. He wants to sue the city, state and national governments for wrongful death, saying their negligence led to the crash that killed Tessa. Tranchant said he does not want money but change, so that criminal illegal immigrants are kept out of the country.
In recent years, the Hampton Roads area's construction, tourism and farming industries have drawn a growing immigrant population, many from Mexico. Still, immigrants make up less than 6 percent of the area's 1.65 million residents.
Tranchant, a former Navy pilot, said he used to worry about illegal immigration mostly as a terrorism issue.
That changed March 30, 2007. Alison and Tessa were waiting at the light when Alfredo Ramos, drunk and speeding, slammed into their car, killing both. Soon police revealed that Ramos, 22, had been convicted of drunken driving in neighboring Chesapeake and public intoxication in Virginia Beach but never questioned about his immigration status.
Virginia Beach police were prohibited from asking suspects charged with misdemeanors about their status; Chesapeake had no policy. Ramos was sentenced to serve 24 years in prison.
Fox News's Bill O'Reilly seized upon the crash. He accused Virginia Beach officials of operating a "sanctuary city." Local newspapers and online chats filled with furious exchanges.
The uproar led Virginia Beach to require that police check the immigration status of all arrested. Virginia Beach and Chesapeake passed measures requiring that companies doing business with the cities pledge not to hire illegal immigrants.
The state task force was formed by three congressional representatives, including Thelma Drake (R), who said the crash brought her constituents' numerous calls over illegal immigration "to another level."
Help Save Hampton Roads, an offshoot of Northern Virginia groups fighting illegal immigration, formed after Tessa and Alison's deaths.
"Nobody knew this situation was out there until this catalyzed it," said Brian Kirwin, a Virginia Beach representative for the statewide group Save the Old Dominion, which counts the Hampton Roads area as its second-largest base after Northern Virginia. "It didn't have a name and a face."
But the turmoil and policy changes also sparked "instantaneous" fright among the region's Latino immigrants, said Dan Curran, a real estate agent and immigrant advocate who said he and his wife were quickly besieged by calls from people expecting widespread raids.
Beatriz Amberman, a Virginia Beach resident who is vice chairman of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, has indefinitely called off a fall Hispanic festival she has hosted for six years. She said Latinos have felt "scapegoated" and were too wary to attend.
At a Hispanic grocery, a mother and daughter from Mexico nodded knowingly when asked about the crash, which they said had caused legal and illegal Latinos to walk rather than drive and to avoid beachfront discos because police patrol them.
"For one person, everyone pays," said Josefina, 50, an illegal immigrant who did not want her last name published.
"It bothers us, too," said Paula, 25, of the crash. "How did he dare to drive like that?"
On a recent sunny afternoon, as Colette Tranchant, 49, drove to the cemetery where the graves of her daughter and Alison lie under the watchful gaze of a statue of an angel, she said the spotlight the crash cast on illegal immigration was a good thing.
"This was so preventable," she said. "If my daughter died, at least it wasn't in vain."