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In Prince William, minorities quickly become new majority

Preliminary census figures point to sizeable gains for minorities - particularly Hispanics - as states prepare to redraw political maps.

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, February 4, 2011; 10:47 PM

Prince William County's Hispanic and Asian populations nearly tripled in the past decade, and the number of blacks doubled, transforming the county into a majority minority jurisdiction, according to data released Thursday by the Census Bureau.

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The county's overall population grew 40 percent, topping 400,000. Almost a third of those residents are younger than 18, crowding schools in Prince William's fast-growing western end. For many of the newcomers, English is their second language.

"We have become a mini melting pot," said county Supervisor W.S. Covington III (R-Brentsville). "If you go into schools in the Linton Hall area, in some elementary schools there are 60 different languages being spoken."

In the mid-1990s, only about 2 percent of the students in Prince William schools enrolled as "Limited English Proficiency" students. By 2010, about 17 percent of students fit that category.

Non-Hispanic whites now make up slightly less than half the county's population. In 2000, they accounted for 65 percent of residents.

By contrast, the percentage of Hispanics soared over the past decade. They now account for about 20 percent of the population, compared with about 10 percent in 2000. The Hispanic population in Prince William schools rose almost 300 percent from September 2000 to September 2010, school officials said.

Their numbers might have been even higher if the Prince William Board of County Supervisors hadn't begun requiring police officers to check the immigration status of anyone arrested. The controversial policy prompted thousands of Hispanics to move out of the county between 2007 and 2009, according to recent studies by the University of Virginia and the Migration Policy Institute.

Jason Grant, a county spokesman, said county officials were not surprised that the Hispanic population continued to grow. Once people realized that the policy was meant to target only illegal immigrants who commit crimes and that there was no racial profiling, they felt comfortable living in the county, he said.

The new census also found that the county's black and multiracial populations have doubled. County officials chalked the diversity up to what is happening across Northern Virginia, which has become home to more minorities in the past decade.

Prince William Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said because diversity has increased "dramatically" over the past decade, he has had to retool the department's outreach efforts. Many policies and brochures are now produced in Spanish, and there is a Spanish telephone line that residents and officers can call if they need a translator. Cultural differences have also created new neighborhood issues, as some people practice customs and traditions that may vary from those of their neighbors.

"We've had to train our officers in cultural awareness over the years," Deane said.

Not only has the county become more diverse, but its western suburbs experienced dizzying growth over the past decade. What is defined as the Linton Hall area by the Census Bureau increased by 28,000 residents, while Gainesville increased by 7,200.

The growth happened so quickly that supervisors have taken various measures over the years to slow it down until needed schools and roads were in place. Covington said that around 2007 or 2008, the board halted all rezonings for a year. In February 2010, the county put the brakes on building in the western end until three new schools - set to open this fall - were operational.

Covington said he attributes some of the growth to the job opportunities now available. The county has focused on bringing high-tech jobs to its prized Innovation @ Prince William Technology Park, which is situated in the western end, and adding more business incentives to entice companies to move to the suburban community. From 2000 to 2009, CNN/Money named Prince William the No. 1 jurisdiction for job growth in Virginia and No. 1 in the Washington area.

Grant said the population boom can also be attributed to the type of community government officials created. The fiscally conservative board probably attracts some residents as well as the planned neighborhood communities in the western end, where people have all the amenities they need close to home, he said.

"I think there was a lot of desire for communities . . . where the tax rate wasn't burdensome and where there were still good services and safe neighborhoods," Grant said. "I think that is why Prince William was appealing, because it provided those opportunities for people."

With the astronomical growth, county officials will have to redistrict before the August primary election. County officials said each district has to be about the same size, and although the demographic makeup of each district doesn't have to be the same, officials can't discriminate when drawing district lines. Board members will vote on where the new district lines ultimately go and also on whether they want to add a district, county officials said, noting that Virginia law allows for up to 11 districts in a jurisdiction.

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