Sarah Karush, AP, August 24, 2007
Resolutions to deny a potentially wide range of public services to illegal immigrants have thrust two northern Virginia counties into the nation’s immigration debate. The measures passed in July in Prince William and Loudoun counties join a flurry of recent efforts by local governments nationwide that believe the federal government has not done enough to stop illegal immigration.
But while other jurisdictions have focused largely on landlords and employers who knowingly rent to and hire illegal immigrants, the Virginia resolutions take a more direct approach. The National Association of Counties says the two counties are the first it knows of to pass measures aimed at denying services.
The new approach comes as some jurisdictions back off plans to crack down on landlords and employers following a federal court ruling last month that struck down a law in Hazleton, Pa. The much-copied law would have imposed fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denied business permits to those who employ them. Hazleton on Thursday filed a notice of appeal in federal court, although it could take up to six months before the appeal is heard.
The northern Virginia measures are also likely to face legal challenges. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which advocates on behalf of Latinos and other minority groups, has threatened to sue Prince William County. Other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say they fear service restrictions will result in discrimination, but are waiting to see how the crackdown will be implemented before taking legal action.
Critics say the resolutions are a racist reaction to profound demographic changes in Prince William and Loudoun, two of the fastest-growing counties in the Washington area. Together, the counties account for 8 percent of Virginia’s population, with more than 600,000 residents.
According to census estimates released this month, Prince William’s Hispanic population has more than doubled since 2000, to nearly 70,000 last year. Non-Hispanic whites account for a little more than half of the population, down from about two-thirds in 2000. In Loudoun, the share of minorities increased from 20 percent to 32 percent.
Proponents blame illegal immigrants for changing the character of the region, accusing them of packing too many people into single-family homes and failing to learn English.
“It’s reached a boiling point—or a boil-over point,” said Supervisor John T. Stirrup, who sponsored the Prince William measure.
In Loudoun and Prince William, officials are still studying which public services legally can be withheld and how such restrictions could be implemented.
The resolutions say emergency medical care will not be denied, and federal restrictions already control many other services. For instance, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that children can’t be kept out of school on the basis of immigration status, while food stamps are off-limits to illegal immigrants.
The status of other services, such as health care for the uninsured, libraries and parks, are less clear-cut.
Prince William County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane has warned that the crackdown could backfire.
The resolution in his county includes a provision instructing police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they detain if there is probable cause to believe the person is in the country illegally.
Deane said the measure could diminish immigrants’ trust in police and make them reluctant to cooperate as witnesses. He also said denying recreational services could lead to a rise in the number of young people turning to crime.