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.
"The people who implemented this law are still in power. People still fear being persecuted but it is getting a little better," said Prince William resident Carlos Aragon, 59. "And a lot of people don't want to come to the county because they are afraid. They say, 'If there is an accident, even if it's not my fault, they may deport me.' "
The study found that initial fears about racial profiling did not materialize and that only one lawsuit that mentions racial profiling has surfaced. Those accusations were dismissed in court.
Aragon, who hosts a Spanish radio show, said he sees things differently. "I feel there was racial profiling, and that's the reason why everyone started to leave," Aragon said. "The Hispanic businesses and malls are empty. You used to see 100 people at the shopping center, and after the resolution, you'd see five. You noticed the difference."
While people feared racial profiling when the policy was passed, they also hoped that the policy would weed out the illegal immigrants who were committing crimes.
Prince William's overall crime rate has been declining over the past 10 years, said Christopher Koper, director of research at the Police Executive Research Forum and co-author of the study. In 2009, only 6 percent of those arrested for serious crimes were illegal immigrants, Koper said. He said the case was the same for less-serious crimes. "We don't see any evidence that the increase in immigrant population had led to any increase in the overall crime rate," Koper said. "The policy did not affect most types of crime and disorder."
Koper said aggravated assaults dropped significantly between 2006 and 2008, but the question remains whether the decline was attributable to changes in crime reporting or in the number of crimes committed.
Koper said most of the arrests of illegal immigrants in 2009 - about 70 percent - were for drunken driving, public drunkenness and driving without a license.
Another county goal - to save money by not providing services to illegal immigrants - was also not particularly successful, according to the study. Guterbock said there were no "big savings." And the policy has cost the police department almost $3 million to implement and maintain.
"This is not a free policy; the board allocated substantial amounts of money" for this, he said. "Don't try this if you don't want to spend some money."
Guterbock said that, overall, the policy was far-reaching and has changed the composition of the population of the county. Prince William was a "hot spot" for immigration, and that is no longer the case.
"The controversy did have an [impact], but you have to appreciate the collateral damage associated with the rhetoric that drove out other legal immigrants," said Prince William Supervisor Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge). "Quite frankly, I think we have done ourselves some damage."
Prince William Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), who has spearheaded efforts against illegal immigration, said he feels otherwise.
"I believe the report confirms what we believed all along," Stewart said. "The policy we have is fair and while there were some temporary blips, we now have a policy that has overcome any short-term drawbacks."
Stewart said he will send the study to state officials as he continues to push for immigration reform in Virginia.
Despite the study's warning to apply the lessons learned in Prince William with caution, Stewart and Supervisor John T. Stirrup (R-Gainesville) said they think Prince William's policy would be a good one to implement in jurisdictions across the state.
"You are always going to have a disclaimer," Stewart said. " But we have real data that shows it worked. It is something that can be safely tried."