In Prince William County, a call for a tough immigration law

Saturday, July 3, 2010

ARIZONA'S SPASM of xenophobia has inspired copycats as well as critics around the country, a disparate response that reflects Americans' ambivalence toward illegal immigration. In a Washington Post-ABC poll last month, a majority of respondents said they favored the Arizona law, which allows police broad discretion to check the residency status of people -- "your papers, please!" -- based on an arbitrary "suspicion" that they may be undocumented. At the same time, a majority in the poll said they favored amnesty for the estimated 11 million immigrants living in this country illegally -- that is, allowing them to remain in the county, shift to legal status and eventually become eligible for citizenship if they pay a fine and meet other requirements.

That ambivalence, and the political impasse around immigration reform, framed President Obama's speech on the issue Thursday -- his first since becoming president. The president accurately diagnosed the political dimensions of problem: that mending the nation's broken immigration system is stalled in the absence of Republican support in the Senate. Unfortunately, he offered no new ideas to fix the system. His speech, prompted mainly by immigrants' groups unhappy with his administration's inaction, seemed more an attempt to keep Hispanic voters within the Democratic coalition than to inject new life into a moribund debate.

With Congress incapable of acting, other states are now likely to come under increasing pressure to do what Arizona has done.

A test case may be developing in Virginia, where a local politician who has ridden the wave of sentiment against undocumented immigrants wants to push the issue even more. Corey A. Stewart, the top elected official in Prince William County, has proposed a legislative agenda that takes Arizona's law as its template but goes further. Mr. Stewart, a Republican who faces reelection next year, has proposed what he calls the "Virginia Rule of Law Campaign," a package of legislation that, among other measures, would authorize police to ascertain the immigration status of any individual upon "any lawful contact." If that's not an invitation to racial profiling and harassment-on-a-whim, nothing is.

Mr. Stewart, chairman of the county Board of Supervisors, was the driving force behind Prince William's crackdown on undocumented immigrants in 2007, which bred intolerance in the previously relatively harmonious county. The law he sponsored requires the county police to determine the immigration status of suspects upon arrest. Its passage, and bluster from Mr. Stewart and his allies, prompted some illegal immigrants to leave the county -- and probably go to neighboring jurisdictions. Mr. Stewart, with his characteristic disdain for facts, asserts that their departure is responsible for the county's falling crime rate. In fact, the drop in crime mirrors regional and national trends.

Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R) has wisely kept his distance from Mr. Stewart's attempt to take his crusade statewide, saying only he'll study whatever comes up. The governor correctly notes that the federal government has failed to fashion a workable immigration system, and that the nation's laws should be obeyed "and lawful immigration . . . encouraged and facilitated."

Americans remain deeply divided over immigration, and politicians like Mr. Stewart have enjoyed some success in stoking tensions over that divide. Until Congress reforms the nation's immigration system, undocumented immigrants will remain in limbo, and Mr. Stewart and his ilk will make political hay by hounding them.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company