TV Preview

"9500 Liberty" looks back at Prince William immigration wars

By David Montgomery
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 25, 2010

Midway through "9500 Liberty," their penetrating new documentary about the immigration wars of 2007-2008 in Prince William County, filmmakers Eric Byler and Annabel Park let slip which side they are on.

Byler puts down his camera to testify at a hearing of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights. He and Park have been such equitable observers of the complicated controversy -- posting serial YouTube clips of their work-in-progress, showing all points of view without editorial comment -- that the commissioners must think they can shed authoritative light.

After Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart appears flustered and defensive when asked for facts to back his claim that illegal immigrants drag down the economy and drive up the crime rate, the commission turns to Byler. He lists the characteristics Stewart's supporters cite to describe the people they want to drive out:

"Speaking Spanish, playing Latin music, owning a chicken, growing corn, not having health insurance, or living in crowded conditions. These are not a sign of your immigration status," Byler insists. "This is a sign of a particular immigrant community that is struggling to overcome poverty."

He cannot then pick up his camera and adopt the same detached posture as before, but "9500 Liberty" never feels like propaganda. (The name comes from an address at the corner of Liberty and Prince William streets where immigrant supporters erected a series of hand-lettered billboard commentaries.) There is a point of view, but it is earned, and the most zealous immigrant advocates will not be happy, either, with the compromise conclusion.

What Byler and Park portray as a victory for civic sanity is still one of the tougher local immigration enforcement laws in the land.

The story's spine is how the county board, egged on by bloggers, came to unanimously pass a law requiring county police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop if they suspect the person might be an illegal immigrant. Six months later, faced with fiscal and legal realities and stiffening resistance from many non-Latino residents, the board retreated and required police to check only those actually arrested. Since all arrestees are checked, chances of racial profiling are diminished.

The film is edited and paced to make county board politics look Shakespearean. The camera nearly achieves the ideal of the proverbial fly on the wall, venturing into private homes and businesses in search of the stories behind the story.

The filmmakers' good faith effort to create a "safe space" for all varieties of raw emotion pays off. The desperation of those who speak at the edge of tears about discrimination and deportation is heartbreaking. But the panic and anger in the raised voices of those who decry this "invasion" are no less sincere or moving, in their way.

Greg Letiecq, the anti-illegal-immigrant blogger, confides his religiously based worldview and invites Byler and Park to meetings of Help Save Manassas. He comes off as a nice guy -- a little too sure of himself, but not a caricature.

"Not only do we want to send them back," he says, "we want to send them back with love."

9500 Liberty

airs at 8 p.m. Sunday on MTV 2, MTV U and MTV Tr3s (with Spanish subtitles).

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