Immigration crackdown in Prince William is a cautionary tale

Wednesday, November 24, 2010; 8:41 PM

AFTER 31/2 YEARS and some $3 million in public spending, Prince William County's crusade against illegal immigrants - launched almost single-handedly by an ambitious local politician who has made nativism his stock in trade - has confirmed the county's reputation as a national symbol of intolerance. Now, a study by scholars at the University of Virginia has exposed just what was achieved, and wasn't, when Virginia's second-largest locality undertook its campaign against undocumented workers.

Prince William citizens had been much less concerned with illegal immigration than with traffic and development, but in 2007 Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) put the issue center stage and pushed through a policy that turned out to be a precursor to the one adopted this year in Arizona. Implemented in 2008, it authorized police to check the immigration status of anyone they detained who they suspected might be in the country illegally. After a public uproar, the county watered down the policy - immigration checks are now done only after arrest, and for everyone taken into custody - but the damage to the county's name was done.

The study, paid for by the county, concludes that the crackdown did succeed in driving away - though in many cases probably not very far away - a few thousand illegal immigrants, along with some legal ones. That's unsurprising given that illegal immigrants were the targets of such overheated debate.

But the price of that "success" was to cement Prince William's image of hostility toward immigrants, specifically Hispanic ones. While the (largely legal) Hispanic population continued to boom in most area jurisdictions, it stagnated in Prince William after 2007.

Politicians promised that the county's enforcement efforts would save money by slashing public programs benefiting undocumented immigrants. It did no such thing, since illegal immigrants aren't eligible for most such programs. They suggested it would do away with loitering by migrant workers seeking day jobs. In fact, day-worker sites continue to operate today much as they did before.

Politicians also said the campaign would decrease crime overall. But, the report concludes, illegal immigrants constituted a small portion of those arrested, and the crackdown had little effect on most kinds of crime - though it may have contributed somewhat to reductions in aggravated assault and hit-and-run accidents.

The report also blames the crusade for stoking tensions between Prince William police officers and Hispanics, who make up 20 percent of the county's residents. Relations have now improved, but only thanks to an intensive and sustained repair job by the county's well-regarded police department and an enlightened police chief.

Mr. Stewart is now urging other Virginia localities to follow Prince William's lead. He misleadingly portrays the U-Va. report as vindication of the county's crackdown, which it clearly is not. In fact, it is a cautionary tale, and other local officials in the state would be wise to read the report before they embrace the Prince William model.

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