Supporters of the anti-illegal immigration measure adopted in Prince William County last week have argued that its most important purpose is to send a powerful signal to the county’s mostly Latino illegal immigrants that they are no longer welcome.
It appears the message has already been received: Terrified that new policies will lead to mass deportations, illegal immigrants and the many legal immigrant relatives and friends who live with them have been moving out of Prince William ever since July, when county supervisors first approved the plan’s outline.
The size of the migration is difficult to measure, particularly during a year when slumping housing prices and skyrocketing foreclosures have led many residents to move for purely economic reasons.
Still, signs of the growing climate of fear are everywhere.
At the Freetown Market, a convenience store in a heavily Latino section of Woodbridge that offers U-Haul trucks for hire, one-way rentals have jumped from between 10 and 20 a month just before July to about 40 a month today.
In the same strip mall, at a money-transfer store where the customer line to pay utility bills once snaked out the door, business has slowed so dramatically the past three months that one clerk has been let go and the remaining one spends most of her time on the computer, e-mailing gloomy updates to relatives back home in Guatemala.
A few doors down, staff workers at the IMA English language academy will soon be taking the American flag decorations off the walls and moving to a smaller space, because the number of students has plummeted from 350 to about 60 since July.
“There is a mass panic,” said the academy’s owner, Roberto Catacora. “Those who haven’t already moved away don’t dare step outside their houses.”
Although one of the new measures directs county police to check the immigration status of only criminal suspects, many immigrants think that all Latinos will be subject to random sweeps, Catacora added.
The effect on his once-bustling academy was palpable on a recent weeknight, when all but one of the six classrooms were deserted.
Most departing immigrants, however, appear to be moving closer afield, choosing states such as North Carolina or neighboring counties such as Prince George’s or Arlington that they perceive as less hostile.
“This is not something that only affects the undocumented,” [real estate] agent Rosie Vilchez said. “Because in the same family, it’s so common to have some people who are citizens, some people who are residents and some who are undocumented. And those with papers are going to do whatever is necessary to protect those without.”
[Salvadoran mason renting an apartment in Manassas says,] “I feel like when this county was growing, when they needed us, they welcomed us Latinos with open arms,” he said. “But now that the county is all grown up and times are hard, it’s totally turned its back on us. They are so ungrateful.”