Pr. William Business Owners Protest

By Kristen Mack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Small-business owners are calling on Prince William County lawmakers to rescind a controversial immigration measure that has required company owners to prove they are living in the country legally.

About 4,000 small-business owners recently received notices about the new requirement telling them they have until March 1 to provide proof that they are legal residents in order to get their business licenses renewed.

"It serves zero purpose," said John Gray, a resident and accountant who has operated his firm in Prince William for 21 years and is leading the opposition. "Practically, it doesn't make any sense. Not one illegal immigrant is going to be discovered by this process."

Supervisors included the requirement as part of a dramatic shift in immigration policy that won unanimous approval in October 2007 -- a policy that included provisions ordering police to check the immigration status of people they arrested and cutting off certain services to the homeless, elderly or addicted who could not document their legal status.

The licensing requirement has met resistance from doctors, architects, contractors and others who said they object to standing in line for hours with a birth certificate or passport to prove their legal status. Although some members of the Board of County Supervisors have expressed sympathetic support for the business owners, no supervisor has proposed a formal revision to the immigration legislation.

"If they rescind this, it makes them look like they are softening the policy," Gray said.

Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) said revisiting the illegal immigration policy to address this issue would only serve as a diversion.

"Our policy is in place. Most of the community seems to be happy with it," he said. "I don't think anyone is going to have the stomach to reopen this right in the middle of a tough budget cycle."

Supporters of the provision point to an opinion from Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell that says revenue commissioners should verify the legal status of business license applicants. His opinion, which is not technically binding, was in response to a 2006 request from the revenue commissioner in Campbell County. Almost all counties essentially ignored McDonnell's recommendation, including Fairfax and Loudoun.

"Most tax officials in the commonwealth have reviewed the opinion and do not abide by it," said Robert S. Wertz Jr., Loudoun County's revenue commissioner. "It's an opinion, right? There's no requirement by the code of Virginia to tell tax officials they should be doing it."

Manassas, a city adjacent to Prince William, is a rare exception. It also requires business owners to prove their residency.

All Prince William businesses grossing more than $100,000 in sales are required to obtain business licenses. Representatives of corporations, however, are not required to provide legal proof, because they are considered legal entities where they are incorporated, created or registered, according to the county.

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