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.
From March 2008 -- when police implemented the first version of the policy -- through the end of that year, five of 135 people charged with forcible rape and aggravated assault were illegal immigrants, and no illegal immigrant was charged with murder or robbery. Of the 1,249 people charged with major property crimes, including burglary, larceny and auto theft, 58 -- less than 5 percent -- lacked legal status.
But the group accounted for more arrests for other offenses, police said. Illegal immigrants made up about 21 percent of prostitution arrests during the 10-month period. They also made up about 10 percent of those charged with selling or manufacturing some opiate-based drugs or cocaine; about 10 percent of arrests for sex offenses other than forcible rape; about 3 percent of vandalism arrests; almost 11 percent of public drunkenness arrests; nearly 6 percent of those arrested for DUI; and about 14 percent of those accused of driving without a license.
Overall, there were 20.1 crimes per thousand residents in 2008, up from 19.8 the year before. Major violent crime dropped almost 22 percent, but major property crimes increased 5.3 percent, probably driven in part by the recession, officials said.
At the direction of the Board of Supervisors, Prince William police began a policy in March 2008 requiring officers to investigate the residency status of anyone detained for breaking a state or local law if there was probable cause the person was here illegally. After a revision that took effect in July, officers must inquire about the status of all people physically arrested.
George E. Tita, an associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California at Irvine, said the charges against illegal immigrants are, in part, due to their circumstance. They can't get driver's licenses and often can't get legitimate work, so arrests for prostitution and driving without a license are to be expected, he said.
"If you can't find a legitimate job, you're going to enter the underground economy," Tita said. "It's really easy to create some sort of moral panic or demonize some sort of group when you have a couple of high-profile murders. . . . . Illegal aliens are like the rest of us in the sense that there's a distribution. . . . There's a lot of good people, and then there are some people that are not so good."
County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said the policy has definitely "had some impact" but is waiting for the results of a two-year study by the University of Virginia for conclusive results.
To Manassas area resident Alan Wessol, a member of Help Save Manassas, which was instrumental in its support of the crackdown, the numbers don't add up. He said what he sees and hears day-to-day in the news tells him that illegal immigrants contribute substantially to crime.
"Based on what I can see and what I can read, I would say there's a higher percentage of major crimes committed by illegals than are actually reported," he said.
According to the crime report, unreported crime might in fact be an issue and could be responsible for a false drop in certain categories. One possible reason is a decline in satisfaction among Hispanics and African Americans with local police, according to county survey data.
"Some of the reduction in reported crime may be due to a lower reporting rate among these groups," the crime report states.
Also, some illegal immigrants who break the law might be missed because police are required to look into a person's residency status only when taking a suspect into custody. For lesser offenses, such as driving without a license, physical arrests don't always occur.
Stay-at-home mother and volunteer Donna Widawski of Haymarket isn't waiting for more statistics. She serves on the county's public safety task force and said that even a single crime committed by a person here illegally is unacceptable.
"If one life is saved or one person not injured as a result of one illegal alien not operating a vehicle," she said, "that's a statistic that's immeasurable."
Staff writer Nick Miroff contributed to this report.