The Melting Pot Boils Over

Marc Fisher, Washington Post, July 19, 2007

Nine years ago, John Stirrup says, he and his wife, Heidi, decided to move out of South Arlington because “our neighborhood was changing pretty drastically. There was a big gang presence, and it was beginning to get dangerous.”

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The Stirrups moved to Prince William County—to Haymarket, to the promise of open spaces, good schools and a community that shares their values.

If John Stirrup’s name sounds familiar, that’s because he has been a county supervisor since 2004. He proposed a measure to take action against illegal immigrants, and the county board passed a scaled-down version of it last week. The resolution that supervisors approved empowers police to check into the immigration status of anyone who is arrested and directs county agencies to determine which services they can deny to illegal immigrants.

What compelled Stirrup to act was the sense that his new home is changing in ways disturbingly close to what he experienced in Arlington. “Not in my neighborhood,” he says, “but when I visit the 7-Eleven, it’s the same feel as we had in Arlington”—a sense of being a stranger in his own community.

In his resolution, Stirrup summed up that sense in one word: “lawlessness.” But with the county’s crime rate falling steadily in recent years, I asked what exactly he meant.

“Lawlessness was a good word, because it really describes what people are enduring here,” he says. “They wake up in the morning, and the house across the street has nine or 15 people living there instead of four. There are unregistered vehicles in the driveway and trash in the yard. We’ve seen a significant increase in rats. These individuals get in their cars, without license or insurance, and drive on our roads to get to jobs where they are paid off the books and under the prevailing wage, without benefits. On the weekends, there’s extensive consumption of alcohol, loud music, and the comments women have told me about from the men are really unbelievable.

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Unlike many Prince William residents who are glad to see the county take a stand against illegal immigrants, Stirrup—a Republican who represents the Gainesville district and works in Alexandria for a shipping industry trade association—says he thinks local governments across the country can collectively force federal authorities to be more aggressive about deporting people who are in the country illegally.

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The larger goal of restoring the rule of law, he says, is more important than the county police chief’s concerns that the new policy will poison relations between police and immigrants who are victims of or witnesses to crimes.

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In Edmonston, the mayor says, “you’ll see no cars parked on the grass, no homes teeming with dozens of people. If there are any violations, they will be addressed through a $75 educational lesson from our school of code enforcement.”

Stirrup says that approach has not worked in Prince William, where inspectors have trouble getting access to overcrowded houses if residents claim to be members of the same family. Stirrup plans to propose a law to hold landlords accountable if their properties are converted into boarding houses for immigrant workers.

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Stirrup says this time is different. “In previous waves of immigration, you had a vast majority of the immigrants who wanted to assimilate and embrace the American dream,” he says. “These individuals have no desire to embrace American culture. Their motivation is a purely economic one—to make money and ship it home.”

I thought back on my grandmother’s stories of hoarding the dollars she earned in a hat factory in New York’s Lower East Side and sending what she could back to her family in her native Russia. Yet sending money back in no way diminished her determination to be a hard-core, flag-waving U.S. citizen who embraced the United States, right down to watching Lawrence Welk on TV every Saturday night.

What is different about the recent spurt in immigration is that our country has changed: Jobs and cheaper housing are no longer in city neighborhoods where immigrants live in isolated ghettos. Instead, immigrants—legal or not—live smack dab in the middle of the rest of us. That confronts us with the culture clash that has always been part of the glorious process of becoming American.

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