After Vote, Pr. William Immigrant Plan Faces Hurdles
Thursday, October 18, 2007
Within months, traffic stops in Prince William County may carry serious consequences for thousands of residents, as police officers begin checking the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law, whether for speeding or shoplifting, if they believe that person is in the country illegally.
With their unanimous vote early yesterday, the county supervisors also cut off certain services to illegal immigrants who are homeless, elderly or addicted to drugs.
The supervisors have yet to determine how they will pay for enforcement of the policies. But in a raw, emotional sense, the perception of the changes coming to Prince William has outpaced the reality of funding limitations and other practical matters.
"We get the looks," said Yolanda Lemus, a Salvadoran-born U.S. citizen who lives in Woodbridge. "I've felt it since this whole thing first came out. You don't have to be a criminal."
Lemus, an administrative assistant, said she was too upset to go to work this morning after she learned that the Board of County Supervisors had voted 8 to 0 to proceed with its closely followed crackdown. She was one of nearly 400 speakers who lined up to address the supervisors during a 12-hour public comment period that stretched into early yesterday.
More than 1,200 people showed up at the county's government complex in Woodbridge for the vote, the majority of them Hispanics opposed to the measures. Many were stunned that their impassioned pleas failed to stir a single dissenting vote.
"I'm so ashamed," Lemus said. "I cannot believe I live here right now."
Jane Mee, who supported the measures, cheered the vote. "It takes guts for the county to do this," she said. "It shows strength and leadership. We cannot bear the burden of illegal immigration any longer."
A similar debate is playing out in communities across the country, where an increasing number of jurisdictions have been taking steps to clamp down on illegal immigrants after Congress failed to pass immigration overhaul measures.
The resolution approved yesterday contains two provisions addressing concerns raised by residents who say the new measures will lead to racial profiling and discrimination. It calls for a public education campaign to ease fears and directs the county to partner with a university or consulting group to review the measures' fairness after two years.
Police Chief Charlie T. Deane has appeared on Spanish-language radio stations to explain the policies and has allocated $25,000 for informational purposes, saying that misconceptions are widespread on both sides of the debate.
"On the one hand, many people expect us to do more," Deane said. "And I think there is a perception that the things police have done in the past as part of their normal duties, such as sobriety checkpoints, are now seen as asking for documents."
"In reality, officers will be carrying out their duties as they normally have," he said.
Under the new rules, officers will cooperate more closely with federal immigration authorities and check the status of anyone who breaks a law or local ordinance if there is probable cause to believe the person is an illegal immigrant. Officials say routine traffic stops may last several hours, as patrol officers sort through foreign identification cards and visa categories and consult with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents.
But Deane said county police will not enforce the measures until all of his 537 officers are trained in determining legal status, which will take months. Classes won't begin until at least January.
A seven-officer Criminal Alien Unit created by the board's vote yesterday won't materialize overnight, either. First, the officers will need to be trained by federal agents, and the county is waiting in line along with dozens of other localities targeting illegal immigrants.
Furthermore, Deane said the new measures are primarily designed to snare illegal immigrants with criminal backgrounds. Although county officers will have the power to check the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law, federal agents will still need to determine what to do next and aren't capable of picking up every illegal immigrant with a broken taillight. Those released will have their personal information forwarded to immigration agents, who may initiate deportation proceedings.
"This is a responsible, careful and measured approach. This is not the broad and sweeping end-all solution," said Greg Letiecq, a conservative blogger and president of Help Save Manassas, the grass-roots organization that helped draft the measures and lobbied hard for their approval.
Legal experts say the county policies are untested in court. A group of 22 plaintiffs has filed a lawsuit against the county and its top officials in federal court seeking to block the measures, claiming that they violate equal protection laws and that immigration enforcement is a federal concern.
The supervisors committed just $325,000 yesterday toward the police measures, which are projected to cost $14.2 million over five years. County staff members have said that the costs will be minimal for the new service restrictions.
Programs that are now off-limits for illegal immigrants include bus tours for senior citizens, leadership training programs for adults, and rental and mortgage assistance. The measures also prohibit illegal immigrants from getting business licenses.
Deane said that the $325,000 was "start-up" funding and that he would return to ask the supervisors for the rest of the money they have pledged. No price tag was attached to the public education campaign or the county's planned partnership with a university or consulting group. But the board's chairman, Corey A. Stewart (R), who is campaigning for reelection as an illegal-immigration "fighter," said he expected those costs to be "nominal."
"We're getting a big bang for the buck here," Stewart said before the supervisors' meeting. "The overall budget for Prince William County is $2 billion," he said, calling the measures "a drop in the bucket."