County asks localities across Va. to follow it on immigration

By Jennifer Buske
Sunday, November 21, 2010

Prince William County supervisors are calling on other localities in Virginia to adopt an immigration policy similar to the one they put in place nearly three years ago.

By a vote of 6 to 2, the Board of County Supervisors approved a policy statement Tuesday that calls the county's immigration policy "effective" and says that given its "successful implementation," it should be used by all law enforcement agencies across the commonwealth. The statement was approved as part of the board's legislative agenda.

Supervisors Frank J. Principi (D-Woodbridge) and Martin E. Nohe (R-Coles) cast the dissenting votes, questioning whether the board was suggesting or requiring jurisdictions to participate in immigration reform.

"This sounds like an unfunded mandate, and I know we don't appreciate unfunded mandates," Principi said. "Our policy costs millions of dollars to implement, and if that's the case, I'm not sure I want to be in the position to [authorize] an unfunded mandate."

The legislative priority was initiated by board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), who began a separate campaign this year to bring an immigration crackdown to Virginia. Although the original goal of his campaign, dubbed Virginia Rule of Law, was to have the state implement a policy similar to Arizona's controversial law, Stewart said Wednesday that he would prefer that the state adopt a policy similar to Prince William's and direct jurisdictions to follow it.

"Yes, this costs money, and you could consider it an unfunded mandate, but the reality is some things are worth it," Stewart said, noting he views illegal immigration as an unfunded mandate. "I want the mandate. The message we want to send is this policy worked for Prince William and it would be good on a statewide basis."

The statement does not say Virginia should mandate that jurisdictions follow a specific immigration policy. Instead, it says, the county supports the implementation of similar policies and programs because they would "enhance public safety across the Commonwealth."

Supervisor Michael C. May (R-Occoquan) said that if the board had asked the state to create a uniform immigration policy jurisdictions had to follow, he would want the state to fund it and reimburse Prince William for the millions it has spent implementing its policy.

Adopted in 2007 and modified in 2008, Prince William's policy 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.

Stewart said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas) is drafting immigration legislation for the General Assembly session that begins in January. Stewart said that the legislation probably would pass the House but that the Senate would be tricky. If it fails, Stewart predicted, it could become an election issue.

Miller did not return calls seeking comment.

The board's action Tuesday came after supervisors were briefed on a University of Virginia study that looked at the policy's implementation and impact. The report said there was evidence the policy had had some effect because the Hispanic noncitizen population in Prince William has decreased. The growth in the county's overall Hispanic population also lags that in other jurisdictions. The report also noted that it is hard to determine the policy's full effect because the economic downturn and mortgage crisis coincided with its implementation.

The report also says the policy created some initial distrust among Hispanics in the county and that Hispanics outside the county are avoiding moving to Prince William. Researchers said the policy did not affect most types of crime. Although aggravated assaults and hit-and-runs dropped significantly, only 6 percent of those arrested for serious crimes in 2009 were illegal immigrants.

"I did toy with duplicating Arizona's law," Stewart said, "but now that Prince William's law has been tried and tested and the study shows very few negative impacts and a lot of positive impacts, I think we have the data needed" to implement it across the state.

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