By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 10, 2008
The family that planted corn in the front yard of their $500,000 home is gone from Carrie Oliver's street. So are the neighbors who drilled holes into the trees to string up a hammock.
Oliver's list goes on: The loud music. The beer bottles. The littered diapers. All gone. When she and her husband, Ron, went for walks in their Manassas area neighborhood, she would take a trash bag and he would carry a handgun. No more. "So much has changed," she said in a gush of relief, standing with her husband on a warm summer evening recently outside a Costco store.
A short distance away, across the river of retail commerce that is Sudley Road, Norman Gonzalez spoke of change not as renewal, but as a kind of collapse.
Business at his restaurant, Cuna del Sol, has declined 50 percent. Worse still, his extended family's slow, steady relocation from the Guatemalan town of Jutiapa to the bustling Prince William suburbs has imploded. "A year ago, I had the biggest family in all of Manassas, maybe 100 relatives," he said.
Now, Gonzalez, a legal U.S. resident, has his own list: Langley Park, Chantilly, Fairfax City. That is where his brothers have scattered, and they will not visit him. "There's too much fear here," Gonzalez said.
Since the day one year ago when Prince William County supervisors launched their crackdown on illegal immigration, the gulf between the Olivers' relief and Gonzalez's dejection has narrowed little, and possibly widened.
At least there is one thing partisans on both sides agree on: Hispanic immigrants are leaving Prince William. Whether their departure has improved the county's quality of life, or pushed its already strained economy further downward, is the new topic of contention driven largely by views of whether the presence of immigrants was a good thing in the first place.
Anecdotes of the trend outstrip hard statistical evidence, yet there are clear signs that the county's Latino population has reversed its pace of rapid growth. County officials said there are 4,000 to 7,000 vacant homes in the county. Trustee notices fill the classified section of area newspapers, chronicling the steady, staggering forfeiture of properties by homeowners with Hispanic surnames such as Mendez, Lozano, Medina and Rodriguez.
Last month, there were 776 foreclosure recordings in the Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park area, court records show, up from 244 in June 2007 and 19 in June 2006.
Would those homeowners have been foreclosed upon anyway, for economic reasons having nothing to do with the county's illegal immigration policies? That, too, is disputed.
"You can't attribute all of what might be negative about the economy in Prince William County to the crackdown," said economist Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University's Center for Regional Analysis. "But it certainly hasn't helped. Neighborhoods that have been weakened because of migration of the Hispanic community out of the county have economic consequences that show up as decreases in retail spending, rental income and potential decreases in the valuation of some housing."
That decrease -- home prices in some areas have fallen by half -- is well worth the improvement in quality of life, according to the most ardent supporters of the county's get-tough approach.
"We have far less residential overcrowding, and that was driving people crazy," said Greg Letiecq, a blogger and president of Help Save Manassas. He helped write the county's policy and has been its most vocal champion. "We'd much rather live next door to a vacant house," he said, speaking for his members at a recent Help Save Manassas meeting.
"With an empty house, there's hope that the house is going to have somebody move into it that's going to be a good neighbor, rather than an overcrowded house that is a neighbor from hell," Letiecq said, adding that his Manassas area home has dropped $100,000 in value in the past year.
The numbers suggest that tensions over crowding have subsided: Complaints about residential overcrowding dropped to 30 last month from 79 in July 2007, according to the county's Neighborhood Services Division.
While some Hispanic immigrants have walked away from their homes, others have left the county in the custody of federal agents. County jail officials have turned over 757 illegal immigrant inmates to Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers in the past year through an agreement that county supervisors approved as part of the crackdown.
Police have referred more than 300 additional suspects to the immigration and customs branch since March, when the county's patrol officers began screening for residency status.
Catching illegal immigrants has made Prince William safer, said Corey A. Stewart (R-At-Large), chairman of the board of county supervisors said. Stewart also said the county's policies have led to "a plummeting of the crime rate." Police statistics show that the county's crime rate has been declining since 2004, even as the population increased.
More importantly, Stewart said, Prince William has become a model for other jurisdictions hoping to act against illegal immigration. "We've started a wildfire in terms of other localities and states adopting similar tactics," said Stewart, who discussed the county's immigration enforcement success Tuesday with the House Republican Policy Committee on Capitol Hill.
While critics say ethnic tensions in Prince William have worsened in the past year, Stewart said he believes the debate over illegal immigration has empowered residents to speak up after "stewing" in frustration for years. "It's allowed people to discuss their feelings," Stewart said, citing a new level of public interest in local government. The board's chambers have been packed with hundreds of residents on several occasions over the past year.
"It's better for people to feel free to speak out about something they care about rather than holding it inside, and in that sense, the controversy has been good for the county as well as the country," Steward said.
Paying for the crackdown has been an ongoing source of tension, and supporters have long maintained that the county would save money through a decreased need for English classes for students who speak another language at home. After years of steady increases, the percentage of students enrolled in English as a Second Language classes appears to have peaked.
In September, the number of students with limited English proficiency, not all of whom were Hispanic, was a record 13,404 in the county school system. By the end of the school year, the total had fallen 4.7 percent, to 12,775.
Then there are the many smaller, symbolic signs that the county has changed in the past year. Rodeo-themed Latino festivals at the county fairgrounds, once a summer staple, have been canceled without explanation by organizers. The El Primero Mercado supermarket on Centreville Road is now a Shoppers International store. And several county services, including drug-treatment programs and in-home care for seniors, now require proof of citizenship.
Starting this month, for example, a county-funded house-cleaning service for the elderly will make sure all recipients are legal U.S. residents.
Such restrictions may not keep illegal immigrants out of Prince William if the steep decline in housing prices eventually lures legal and illegal immigrants back to the county. And advocates said Latinos have learned "clear political lessons" in the past year.
"The community has learned that votes matter," said Mauricio Vivero, director of the Ayuda Business Coalition, which has lobbied legislators and has run commercials on CNN warning other municipalities of the economic consequences in following Prince William's lead.
Vivero said that fewer than half of the Latinos in Prince William who were registered to vote in 2004 did so. In November, he predicted, "there will be a much bigger turnout in Northern Virginia, and [Prince William's crackdown] has helped push it."