Prince William County police program raises fears among immigrants

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Observer Contributor
March 26, 2008

Advocacy groups that support the rights of undocumented immigrants are criticizing a new policy by Virginia’s Prince William County Police Department that they argue will make communities live in fear of an immigration crackdown.

The police department said the criticisms part of a misinformation campaign about their new policy of reporting undocumented suspects to federal authorities, said Sgt. Kim Chinn.

Communities could be subject to police scrutiny as indiscriminately as blacks were in the Deep South during the segregation era, said Siu Hin Lee, the national coordinator of the National Immigrant Solidarity Network, a coalition of national immigrant rights organizations.

“Crimes are committed by all ethnic groups,” Lee said. “This is a targeted movement against immigrants.”

Police argue that the policy would not target all undocumented immigrants in Prince William County. The six officers trained to carry out the initiative would report illegal immigrants suspected of crimes to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, Chinn said. These suspects will be held based on the severity of their crime only, and may be released by the County Police Department even if they are in violation of immigration laws, she said.

The officers, who are part of a federal program connecting local police and federal immigration officials, underwent four weeks of training with ICE to ensure the program was conducted efficiently, Chinn said.

To educate the public on the program, the Prince William County Police Department has implemented an informational campaign on local television and radio. This campaign has focused on Spanish-language media sources including the Univision and the newspaper El Tiempo, Chinn said.

Chinn said that the groups opposed the program has led a negative word-of-mouth campaign that is hard to combat.

“Just talking about it, people are afraid,” she said.

As a result of the policy, large numbers of Hispanic immigrant residents, both documented and undocumented, have already left the county in the run-up to the policy’s enactment, said Nancy Lyall, the legal coordinator of Mexicanos Sin Fronteras, a Northern Virginia-based advocacy group for Hispanic immigrants. The migration of these taxpayers has resulted in vacant homes and a 28 percent increase in the Prince William County tax rate, Lyall said.

“The policy is having a devastating impact on our economy,” she said.

But Greg Letiecq, president of Help Save Manassas, an anti-illegal immigration group in Manassas, Va., said that the changes to the local economy can also be attributed to the slower national economy and the implosion of the residential construction industry. Letiecq said the large numbers of illegal immigrants has done more to harm the economy and the quality of life in Northern Virginia.

“Before illegal aliens flooded Manassas, the area was doing just fine,” Letiecq wrote in an email. “We didn’t have the overcrowded schools we have now, we didn’t wait five hours in an emergency room… and single-family houses weren’t getting jammed full of day laborers.”

It was public complaints like Letiecq’s about the quality of life in the county that led the Prince William County Board of Supervisors to pass a resolution last July requiring the County Police Department to participate in the program with federal immigration officials, Chinn said.

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