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Latinos seek probe of possible rights violations in Prince William

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 28, 2010

Latino activists are asking the Justice Department to investigate allegations of police harassment and civil rights abuses in Prince William County, where police are required to check the immigration status of those arrested in crimes who are suspected of being in the United States illegally.

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The request for an investigation, being made at a meeting with Justice officials on Thursday, comes amid national debate over a similar law passed last month in Arizona. A Department of Justice spokesman confirmed the meeting but said the department would not comment on it.

"Civil rights violations are going on" in Prince William, said Nancy Lyall, legal coordinator for Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, one of the groups meeting with the Justice Department. "People are being stopped and questioned for no apparent reason while walking their dogs. . . . The quality of life for a Latino in the community is different than the quality of life for a white person in the community."

Prince William County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane said Thursday that his department had not seen an increase in complaints about civil rights violations since the ordinance was passed in 2007 and amended in 2008 to address concerns about its constitutionality. "We have a very open complaint process, in Spanish and English. People can make all kinds of allegations, but we should look at the facts."

Deane added that although officers are not required to check the immigration status of people they detain without arrest, they still have discretion to do so, for example, when investigating a crime.

A forthcoming report by George Mason University, based on in-depth interviews with 60 Spanish-speaking households with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, found that Latinos feel less comfortable in Prince William since the ordinance passed. But an interim report on a study underway by the University of Virginia found that although Latinos report feeling less trust in government and lower quality of life since the ordinance, initial fears about racial profiling have not been realized.

Citizen satisfaction surveys commissioned by the county found that satisfaction levels of Latinos rose last year after declining in 2008 after the ordinance.

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