August 12, 2010
As Arizona contends with a federal challenge to its new immigration law, Virginia is back in the spotlight over its policies.
Virginia lawmakers have said they will introduce legislation similar to Arizona's law next year, following five other states that have already done so. Meanwhile, Virginia's attorney general has issued a legal opinion that allows law enforcement officers to check the immigration status of anyone they stop for any reason.
Could this be a way for other states to crack down on undocumented immigrants without getting mired in the courts like Arizona?
'The Devil's In The Details'
The letter requesting clarification from Virginia's attorney general, which set off debate last week, came from Bob Marshall, a Republican state legislator who represents Prince William County. His county's policy — which requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they arrest — is considered among the most aggressive in the state.
Marshall says he was prompted to write the letter by the events in Arizona. "Some of the people who do come across the border for being like day labor or construction workers — some, not all — are part of a distribution network for drugs. And parks are routinely used to grow drugs and harvest them," Marshall says.
Right now, most of Virginia's law enforcement officials can ask about a person's immigration status if he has been legally detained. The new opinion wasn't much different from the one issued three years ago by then-Attorney General Robert McDonnell, who is now governor.
"I didn't read anything in that that I didn't already know," says Charlie Deane, who has been Prince William County's police chief for 22 years. "Our policy is based on the understanding of that opinion. And I don't even think the attorney general's opinion advocates requiring officers to check the immigration status of everyone that they have reason to believe is undocumented. I think it still talks about after they've been arrested."
That distinction is important. In Arizona, the state wants to make it mandatory for people to carry immigration papers. It also requires police officers to detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants. Prince William County's policy, says Deane, is the most aggressive it can be — without risking lawsuits.
"The devil's in the details of this," he says. "And we want people who are living in this community to trust the police and feel that they are being treated fairly."
But the half-dozen shoppers NPR spoke to on a steamy morning at a Hispanic market in Manassas, Va., said they don't think that fairness applies to them.
A lot of people moved out ... they left their homes with most of their stuff in it. And it came to a point where, in my neighborhood, I only had about two neighbors on the block.
More than two years after Prince William County began instituting its policy, the results are starting to show. Hans Silvera says his neighborhood has completely changed.
"A lot of people moved out. A lot of people left their houses; they left their homes with most of their stuff in it. And it came to a point where, in my neighborhood, I only had about two neighbors on the block. That's about it," Silvera says.
He says a lot of people left not because they were undocumented, but out of fear and confusion. Many just crossed county lines, moving where he says the laws aren't as strict.
A Focus On Crime
The drop in numbers has emboldened people like Corey Stewart, chairman of Prince William County's Board of Supervisors. "I've started traveling the Commonwealth of Virginia and telling communities that they ought to take a look at what we're doing and perhaps adopt the same measure," Stewart says.
Stewart claims violent crime dropped sharply after Prince William County passed its law. But statistics show that fewer than 5 percent of those arrested in 2008 were undocumented immigrants.
Deane, the police chief, says this policy will not get rid of crime. "Let's not lead our community to believe that this is going to solve our crime problem the way it works today," he says.
But crime was the focus last week when a nun died in a drunk-driving accident. The driver charged in the case is an undocumented immigrant who had two DUI convictions and was supposed to have been deported.
Still, others only see division in the community. Nancy Lyall of Mexicans Without Borders says if Virginia adopts a tougher policy, like Prince William County's, it will only make matters worse.
"There is so much social upheaval that this will cause," she says. "This is Virginia — this was the heart of the Confederacy — so racial feelings are just below the surface all throughout this county and all throughout this state. And issues like this just bring them right back up to the surface."