Prince William immigration law remains controversial

By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 7, 2010; A08

Three years after the Prince William County board approved an ordinance similar to the controversial immigration legislation passed last month in Arizona, county residents are still arguing about whether it has achieved its intended effects. The results might offer some insight into how Arizona's new law will play out.

The Prince William ordinance, which initially required police to check the status of detainees they suspected of being undocumented immigrants, raised ire among immigrant advocates and drew sharp criticism from the county police chief, who said it would cost taxpayers more, lead to allegations of racism and erode police-community relations -- predictions now being made by opponents of the Arizona law.

The Prince William ordinance was modified in 2008 amid charges that it was unconstitutional and could lead to racial profiling. In the end, rather than questioning only people they suspected of being undocumented immigrants, officers were directed to question all criminal suspects about their immigration status once an arrest was made.

The county also participates in the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement "287(g)" program, in which a cadre of police officers are trained and deputized to act as ICE officers in making status checks and referring individuals for deportation.

Arizona was even quicker than Prince William to start tinkering with its law.

It originally required police to inquire about a detainee's status if there was reasonable suspicion that he or she might be in the country illegally. Last week, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer (R) signed follow-up legislation that restricts officers from using race or ethnicity as the basis for questioning, and allows them to ask immigration status questions only after a stop or an arrest, rather than during any contact, as the earlier law had stated.

In Prince William, initial fears about racial profiling have not been realized, according to preliminary results of a University of Virginia study, that is underway. But the study also said that it seems unlikely that the county's drop in violent crime was because of the policy, because illegal immigrants make up a small percentage of those arrested for such crimes.

Only 2.2 percent of people arrested in Prince William last year were illegal immigrants, according to police, and most of those committed misdemeanor crimes and traffic violations.

The study estimated that fewer than 5,000 immigrants, both legal and illegal, left the county between mid-2007 and the end of 2008. But many of those might have left anyway, said Audrey Singer, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, noting that the economic downturn, which started sooner for lower-wage workers, might have been a factor.

"People were moving, but it's not clear that we can attribute that to the law," she said. Phoenix, too, has seen one of the nation's highest declines in immigrants even before the state legislation was signed, she said.

Proponents of the Arizona and Prince William laws worked with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization that advocates for lower U.S. immigration levels, and its legal affiliate, the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which helped write both laws and is working on similar legislation for other jurisdictions.

"Like in Arizona, this was a response to overwhelming demand," said Ira Mehlman, a federation spokesman, of the Prince William law. "People were congregating on street corners and in Home Depot parking lots; there was overcrowded housing. It was affecting what most people considered to be quality of life."

County board Chairman Corey Stewart, who championed the Prince William ordinance, called it a success, saying it has reduced crime and neighborhood complaints, and reduced the number of immigrants using county services such as public schools.

"We were trailblazers here; no one else in the country had really adopted an ordinance similar to this," he said. "I suspect that Arizona's policy will end up evolving into something similar to what Prince William County ultimately adopted."

But opponents of the ordinance say it caused immigrants to flee the county, leaving neighborhoods dotted with vacant houses and sowing distrust of authorities without making much difference in crime.

"In Prince William we had people moving out, we had property values going down," said Nancy Lyall, legal coordinator for Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, an immigrant advocacy organization that opposed the Prince William ordinance. "The county paid $1 million to mow the lawns of people leaving the county."

The U-Va. study found that although non-Hispanic whites living in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods now feel safer, "the policy has resulted in lower levels of trust in government among Hispanics and African-Americans."

But backers of the Prince William ordinance say the most important victory was psychological. "The effect of the policy was to send a strong message that Prince William County would not welcome illegal aliens, and that if you are an illegal alien, there's a real good chance you're going to be arrested and deported," said Stewart.

Although the laws are similar, it might be hard to use Prince William's legislation to predict how Arizona's will be implemented, because Arizona will apply it across many police departments.

Prince William County Police Chief Charlie Deane said his department worked hard to train officers and educate the public. "We made it very clear . . . that we were going to focus on individuals who had committed crimes, and that we were going to protect crime victims and witnesses regardless of their status, and we were not going to do racial profiling, roadblocks, sweeps or employment investigations."

In Arizona, some police have enthusiastically supported the new law while others have expressed concerns. Three lawsuits have been filed, including two by police officers, challenging the Arizona law, and boycotts of the state have been announced.

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