Pr. William Arrest Data Show Illegal Residents Accused More of Lesser Crimes

A Contrast in Crime Statistics
A Contrast in Crime Statistics
SOURCE: Prince William County Police Department, Washington Post analysis | GRAPHIC: Tobey - The Washington Post
By Jonathan Mummolo
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 12, 2009

About 2 percent of the people charged with major violent crimes in Prince William County last year were illegal immigrants, but they were arrested for a larger portion of secondary offenses, according to newly released statistics and a Washington Post analysis that offer the first comprehensive look at criminal activity since the county implemented its controversial anti-illegal immigration measures.

The number of illegal immigrants charged with crimes was included in the county police department's annual report for the first time since Prince William's immigration policy took effect in March 2008. The policy was crafted after many residents blamed illegal immigrants for overcrowding in their neighborhoods and for general lawlessness.

Police officers are now required to check the immigration status of everyone taken into custody for an alleged state or local crime, and officers can look into someone's status even before making an arrest. Debate over the policy cast a spotlight on Prince William, as the county became a focal point in the national illegal immigration debate.

With the release of the new data, which cover the first 10 months of enforcement, people on both sides of the debate claim that the numbers prove their case. Advocates of the policy say the low numbers of illegal immigrants arrested show that it is working as a deterrent. Opponents say the statistics show that the rhetoric about the safety threat posed by illegal immigrants was overblown.

By one measure, critics said, the policy has failed: The county's crime rate rose last year for the first time since 2004. That increase was driven largely by a surge in property crime, including burglaries and larcenies. But the number of major violent crimes plummeted almost 22 percent from the year before -- more proof, advocates say, that the policy has worked.

"I think what the stats show is the effectiveness of the program," said Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), who fought hard for passage of the policy.

As evidence that the measure is working, Stewart pointed out that illegal immigrants were charged with several homicides in 2007, compared with none in 2008. Two men who were in the country illegally were charged with four of Prince William's nine homicides in 2007, police said.

"There were a series of very serious crimes, high-profile crimes committed by illegal aliens" before the policy, Stewart said. "Frankly, illegal immigrants have done one of two things: They have either left the county, or they simply are being very careful not to commit any crimes and end up in jail."

Nancy Lyall, legal coordinator of the immigrant advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders, said the numbers show that illegal immigrants are not a major problem concerning crime. She said they are an unlikely group of criminals because it is in their interest not to draw attention to themselves.

"This is what we have said all along, before the resolution was even passed," Lyall said. "We knew back then that this was just an excuse. The reality was these lawmakers needed an election issue. They needed something to get people riled up about."

Lyall also said the low arrest numbers show that the money budgeted for the police and jail to run the program -- about $10.5 million over five fiscal years, according to county spokeswoman Liz Bahrns -- could be better spent.

The statistics in the 2008 crime study are as varied as their interpretations.

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