A Hispanic Population in Decline

Nick Miroff, Washington Post, July 10, 2008

The family that planted corn in the front yard of their $500,000 home is gone from Carrie Oliver’s street. So are the neighbors who drilled holes into the trees to string up a hammock.

Oliver’s list goes on: The loud music. The beer bottles. The littered diapers. All gone. When she and her husband, Ron, went for walks in their Manassas area neighborhood, she would take a trash bag and he would carry a handgun. No more. “So much has changed,” she said in a gush of relief, standing with her husband on a warm summer evening recently outside a Costco store.

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Since the day one year ago when Prince William County supervisors launched their crackdown on illegal immigration, the gulf between the Olivers’ relief and Gonzalez’s dejection has narrowed little, and possibly widened.

At least there is one thing partisans on both sides agree on: Hispanic immigrants are leaving Prince William. Whether their departure has improved the county’s quality of life, or pushed its already strained economy further downward, is the new topic of contention driven largely by views of whether the presence of immigrants was a good thing in the first place.

Anecdotes of the trend outstrip hard statistical evidence, yet there are clear signs that the county’s Latino population has reversed its pace of rapid growth. County officials said there are 4,000 to 7,000 vacant homes in the county. Trustee notices fill the classified section of area newspapers, chronicling the steady, staggering forfeiture of properties by homeowners with Hispanic surnames such as Mendez, Lozano, Medina and Rodriguez.

Last month, there were 776 foreclosure recordings in the Prince William County, Manassas, Manassas Park area, court records show, up from 244 in June 2007 and 19 in June 2006.

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“You can’t attribute all of what might be negative about the economy in Prince William County to the crackdown,” said economist Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University’s Center for Regional Analysis. “But it certainly hasn’t helped. Neighborhoods that have been weakened because of migration of the Hispanic community out of the county have economic consequences that show up as decreases in retail spending, rental income and potential decreases in the valuation of some housing.”

That decrease—home prices in some areas have fallen by half—is well worth the improvement in quality of life, according to the most ardent supporters of the county’s get-tough approach.

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“With an empty house, there’s hope that the house is going to have somebody move into it that’s going to be a good neighbor, rather than an overcrowded house that is a neighbor from hell,” Letiecq said [said Greg Letiecq, a blogger and president of Help Save Manassas], adding that his Manassas area home has dropped $100,000 in value in the past year.

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Catching illegal immigrants has made Prince William safer, said Corey A. Stewart (R-At-Large), chairman of the board of county supervisors said. Stewart also said the county’s policies have led to “a plummeting of the crime rate.” Police statistics show that the county’s crime rate has been declining since 2004, even as the population increased.

More importantly, Stewart said, Prince William has become a model for other jurisdictions hoping to act against illegal immigration. “We’ve started a wildfire in terms of other localities and states adopting similar tactics,” said Stewart, who discussed the county’s immigration enforcement success Tuesday with the House Republican Policy Committee on Capitol Hill.

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Paying for the crackdown has been an ongoing source of tension, and supporters have long maintained that the county would save money through a decreased need for English classes for students who speak another language at home. After years of steady increases, the percentage of students enrolled in English as a Second Language classes appears to have peaked.

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Then there are the many smaller, symbolic signs that the county has changed in the past year. Rodeo-themed Latino festivals at the county fairgrounds, once a summer staple, have been canceled without explanation by organizers. The El Primero Mercado supermarket on Centreville Road is now a Shoppers International store. And several county services, including drug-treatment programs and in-home care for seniors, now require proof of citizenship.

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