Latinos Looking Over Shoulder

Pamela Constable and Nick Miroff, Washington Post, March 4, 2008

Work-van drivers signaled long before their turns to avoid being pulled over for a traffic violation. Day laborers skipped their early morning coffee at 7-Eleven, and merengue tunes played to empty tables at Latino lunch counters across Prince William County yesterday.

It was the first day of a county ordinance that allows police to check people’s immigration status for even minor legal infractions.

Police officials pledged to enforce the law fairly and to not stop and question individuals based on their racial or ethnic appearance, but many Hispanic residents said they feared they would be stopped without reason and deported for such violations as driving without a valid license or having a broken taillight.

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Immigrant advocate groups, speaking at a community meeting Sunday in Woodbridge and on local Spanish-language radio stations, have been advising immigrants without legal papers to keep a low profile and obey all traffic rules. If stopped by police, the groups said, they should be polite and show some identification but otherwise remain silent until they can see a lawyer.

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County Police Chief Charlie T. Deane, speaking to reporters yesterday, said that his officers would “continue to enforce the law in a fair, lawful and reasonable manner” and that they have been trained “very carefully” to conduct immigration checks. The new measures are expected to cost $26 million over five years, and Deane has asked county officials for an additional $3 million to install video cameras in every patrol car and monitor them to ensure proper procedures are followed.

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Legal and illegal immigrants yesterday expressed the belief—some with sadness, others with indignation—that the law is part of a larger effort to drive Hispanics out of the county. Santos Perdomo, 38, a legal resident who owns a business and two houses in Prince William, said he had always donated to the county police charity fund. Now, he said, he no longer feels like giving.

“Even though I am legal, I feel rejected,” he said. “This law has ruined all the good feelings. When I came here 12 years ago, my neighbors sent me pies. Now they look at me differently.”

Perdomo said that many Hispanics are leaving the county but that he plans to stay. “I don’t want to teach my children to be bitter,” he said.

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