Study: Prince William, Va., policy appears to affect Hispanic population

By Jennifer Buske
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 11:17 PM

Prince William County's controversial immigration policy appears to have had some effect, as the growth of the county's Hispanic population now lags behind that of other jurisdictions, a report from the University of Virginia states.

The three-year, $385,000 study - released Tuesday by the university's Center for Survey Research - also found that the county's noncitizen Hispanic population, legal and illegal, dropped by 7,700 from 2006 to 2008, and that illegal immigrants accounted for 2,000 to 6,000 of that decline.

The study also found that illegal immigrants were committing a relatively small percentage of the county's serious crimes, just 6 percent in 2009.

The county's police and elected officials requested the study to look at the implementation and effects of a policy - adopted in 2007 and modified in 2008 - that requires police officers to check the immigration status of all people arrested on suspicion of violating state or federal law.

The original policy directed officers to check the immigration status of people only if there was probable cause to believe that they were in the country illegally.

The study indicates that some changes in the Hispanic population can be attributed to the policy, but the researchers make it clear that the policy's implementation coincided with the economic downturn, the mortgage crisis and the decline of the construction industry.

Because of those factors and others - for instance, the county's having modified its policy to be less controversial and the county's having a well-funded police department - the lessons of Prince William's experience should be applied with "great caution" in other places and other times, said Thomas Guterbock, director of U-Va.'s Center for Survey Research.

"I think the policy had an effect on the ground in the direction it was intended, but it also came at a time of a very sharp economic downtown, which also contributed to changes in population ... and migration behaviors," said Brookings Institution demographer Audrey Singer, who focuses on race and U.S. immigration policy. "I think the researchers are being very careful with what they say because they can't get a very hard estimate."

Before 2006, the county saw "explosive" growth in its Hispanic population, which almost doubled from 2000 to 2005. The growth rate leveled off after the implementation of the county's new policy, however, and it continued to grow in the rest of the Washington area, the report says. The report states that Hispanics are avoiding Prince William and that the county, therefore, did not succeed in implementing an immigration policy without damaging its reputation as a welcoming place to live. Most of the county's noncitizen population is Hispanic, the report says.

"It is quite certain the number of illegal immigrants in Prince William has gone down since the policy has gone into effect, and Hispanic growth has leveled off," Guterbock said. "The policy had effects, and it made a splash. But some of the effects are not good things. How you look at it will depend on where you sit."

Initial distrust of and dissatisfaction with county government has subsided among Hispanic residents of Prince William, the report says. The change in attitude can be attributed to adjustments in the policy, community outreach and the decline in attention paid by the media and groups opposing illegal immigration.

When Prince William residents were asked about the policy, about 76 percent said they were satisfied. Many who were dissatisfied said it was because they fundamentally disagreed with the policy.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company