A les­son in com­pro­mise

Prince Wil­liam County’s sur­pris­ing jour­ney on im­mi­gra­tion

The Washington Post Sunday - - FRONT PAGE - BY PAMELA CON­STA­BLE AND TARA BAHRAMPOUR

Five years ago, as Prince Wil­liam County po­lice be­gan re­port­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants to fed­eral of­fi­cials, Edilio Mo­rales tried to lie low. The Gu­atemalan ware­house worker avoided hitch­ing rides with other un­doc­u­mented friends and started bi­cy­cling to church. Sev­eral times, he said, the po­lice stopped him and asked him for iden­ti­fi­ca­tion but let him go af­ter he took out his Bi­ble. About the same time, Steve Thomas was get­ting fed up. One house on his street was home to four im­mi­grant fam­i­lies, who were run­ning an il­le­gal laun­dry and day-care cen­ter. As op­er­a­tions chair­man of Help Save Manas­sas, a group that aimed to re­move il­le­gal im­mi­grants from the area, Thomas ar­dently en­dorsed the new po­lice man­date.

To­day, Mo­rales’s fear has abated, and so has Thomas’s frus­tra­tion.

Thomas says that the ren­tal houses on his street in Manas­sas no longer have mul­ti­ple fam­i­lies and neigh­bors have re­solved their dif­fer­ences. “I’ve ac­tu­ally be­come pretty good friends with some of the peo­ple who were on the other side of the is­sue,” he said.

Mo­rales, 44, who stopped to chat re­cently while brows­ing among guavas and chilies in a Wood­bridge su­per­mar­ket, no longer looks over his shoul­der. “We are not afraid of the po­lice any­more,” he said. “My fam­ily is all here, and I have a good job. I have faith that Mr. Obama will ful­fill his prom­ise so I can be

le­gal, too.”

Prince Wil­liam has changed dra­mat­i­cally since 2007, when of­fi­cials, re­spond­ing to a mas­sive in­flux of poor and of­ten un­doc­u­mented His­pan­ics, passed an un­usu­ally tough or­di­nance aimed at driv­ing them out. The ac­tion helped spur sim­i­lar ef­forts in Ari­zona and Alabama, spread panic among Lati­nos and cre­ated emo­tional con­fronta­tions that tore at the fab­ric of this North­ern Vir­ginia county of 400,000.

To­day, as Congress strug­gles with how to han­dle the na­tion’s 11 mil­lion il­le­gal im­mi­grants, Prince Wil­liam’s re­mark­able jour­ney of­fers a les­son in com­pro­mise. The county ul­ti­mately paired tougher en­force­ment reg­u­la­tions with a more in­clu­sive and tol­er­ant ap­proach, a com­bi­na­tion that in many ways re­flects the cur­rent bi­par­ti­san pro­posal.

Af­ter a con­tentious trial run, the ini­tial law was soft­ened. Mean­while, zon­ing codes were tough­ened, re­duc­ing over­crowd­ing and other prob­lems that had ac­com­pa­nied the im­mi­grant wave.

Prince Wil­liam has emerged as a more tol­er­ant mo­saic. The im­mi­grant pop­u­la­tion has re­mained steady at about 20 per­cent, and the mix still in­cludes many il­le­gal im­mi­grants, but some have be­come le­gal res­i­dents and U.S. ci­ti­zens by now.

“At the time of the an­ti­im­mi­grant bill, even U.S. ci­ti­zens felt un­wanted. Now the fear is leav­ing and peo­ple are get­ting back to busi­ness,” said Car­los Cas­tro, 50, a nat­u­ral­ized U.S. cit­i­zen from El Sal­vador who owns sev­eral su­per­mar­kets in Prince Wil­liam. “De­spite all the suf­fer­ing and an­guish, our com­mu­nity is stronger and oth­ers are more ac­cept­ing of us.”

Ten­sion and po­lar­iza­tion

The 2007 or­di­nance trans­formed the county into an ide­o­log­i­cal war zone, spark­ing boy­cotts and threats and emp­ty­ing out en­tire res­i­den­tial streets.

Pro­po­nents of the the law said it was nec­es­sary to re­duce the prob­lems of crime, res­i­den­tial over­crowd­ing and over­bur­dened so­cial ser­vices they said had re­sulted from the flow of il­le­gal im­mi­grants mov­ing in due to the then-boom­ing econ­omy.

“It got worse and worse,” said Corey Ste­wart, chair­man of the the Board of County Su­per­vi­sors and a lead­ing pro­po­nent of the or­di­nance. “We had po­lice on the street telling us they had picked up sus­pects they pre­sumed were il­le­gal im­mi­grants and sent to jail, and they would see them again in the com­mu­nity, and that was frus­trat­ing to them.”

The law called for po­lice to ques­tion peo­ple they sus­pected of be­ing in the coun­try il­le­gally. It also de­nied ser­vices to el­derly, home­less, or drug-ad­dicted il­le­gal im­mi­grants. In ad­di­tion, the county had joined a fed­eral pro­gram, known as 287 (G), that es­tab­lished for­mal co­op­er­a­tion be­tween lo­cal law en­force­ment and the Im­mi­gra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment agency.

Im­mi­grants and their ad­vo­cates called the or­di­nance un­con­sti­tu­tional and pre­dicted it would lead to racial pro­fil­ing. Lati­nos here il­le­gally be­came ner­vous about driv­ing, go­ing to the hospi­tal or even walking down the street.

Fears of de­por­ta­tion, com­bined with the na­tion­wide eco­nomic down­turn, prompted be- tween 2,000 and 6,000 im­mi­grants to leave, ac­cord­ing to a later study by the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia. Le­gal im­mi­grants, too, re­ported be­ing asked to show proof of res­i­dency for ba­sic ser­vices.

“This was a very po­lar­ized com­mu­nity, and there were un­re­al­is­tic ex­pec­ta­tions on all sides,” said Char­lie Deane, who was county po­lice chief when the mea­sure was ap­proved.

At the height of the ten­sions, ac­tivists re­ported re­ceiv­ing threats. Elena Schloss­berg, a mother of two who op­posed the law, got in­tim­i­dat­ing e-mails. “Peo­ple hated you that didn’t even know you, and wished hor­ri­ble things upon you,” she re­called.

Af­ter the county board voted unan­i­mously to fund the new po­lice pro­gram, stunned im­mi­grants be­gan to pack their be­long­ings.

Mean­while, county po­lice, wor­ried that the law would over­turn years of build­ing good com- mu­nity re­la­tions, em­barked on a pub­lic in­for­ma­tion blitz, at­tend­ing com­mu­nity meet­ings and cir­cu­lat­ing brochures in Span­ish that pledged not to ar­rest peo­ple “based on their racial ap­pear­ance” and promised to pro­tect crime vic­tims from be­ing de­ported.

Fi­nally, in 2008, amid grow­ing con­tro­versy over its le­gal­ity, the or­di­nance was mod­i­fied. Po­lice were di­rected to ques­tion all crim­i­nal sus­pects about their im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus — but only af­ter an ar­rest.

“Within weeks of chang­ing the pol­icy,” said board mem­ber Marty Nohe, “it ceased to be the prime thing peo­ple talked about.”

No easy so­lu­tions

On a re­cent snowy evening in Fe­bru­ary, ev­ery chair in the Union His­pana, a fi­nan­cial ser­vices of­fice in Manas­sas, was taken by Lati­nos wait­ing for help with their tax re­turns. Some were il­le­gal im­mi­grants, but all had ar­rived with pay stubs, tax­payer ID cards and a de­sire to so­lid­ify their place in Amer­i­can so­ci­ety.

“Our fam­ily is do­ing okay, but our dream is to be 100 per­cent le­gal,” said Miguel Ser­rano, 34, a land­scaper from Guatemala. “We have three kids and a house now, but my wife does not have pa­pers, and we al­ways worry about what would hap­pen if she got sent home. But now that Mr. Obama has a sec­ond term, we are pray­ing that he can re­solve our prob­lems once and for all.”

While some il­le­gal im­mi­grants said they were more fo­cused on be­ing safe from de­por­ta­tion than on be­com­ing U.S. ci­ti­zens, sev­eral re­cently nat­u­ral­ized ci­ti­zens ex­pressed a new­found sense of be­long­ing in Prince Wil­liam, a former farm­ing county that has been trans­formed by town­house de­vel­op­ments, strip malls and multi-lane park­ways.

“Be­fore, we were a meek mi­nor­ity with lim­ited English. Now we are vot­ers,” said Julio Piñeda, 42, a stocky main­te­nance worker who was shop­ping for cac­tus pads in a Wood­bridge mar­ket while mari­achi mu­sic blared over­head. Two decades ago, he was an un­doc­u­mented refugee from El Sal­vador; to­day he is a con­fi­dent Amer­i­can cit­i­zen who proudly de­clared he had voted for Obama.

As mem­o­ries of Prince Wil­liam’s di­vi­sive bat­tles re­cede, many non-im­mi­grants say the is­sue of il­le­gal im­mi­gra­tion has faded.

At the food court in the Po­tomac Mills shop­ping cen­ter in Wood­bridge, col­lege stu­dent Ken­dra Miles, 19, said that when she moved to the area five years ago, she of­ten heard peo­ple com­plain about im­mi­grants “hang­ing out on the streets.” To­day, she said, “I think they’re just part of the cul­ture.”

Robert Weiss, 55, who owns an equip­ment-re­pair busi­ness, was eat­ing at a nearby ta­ble. He said he had sup­ported the orig­i­nal law but now fa­vors of­fer­ing il­le­gal im­mi­grants a path to cit­i­zen­ship — as long as they don’t jump ahead of le­gal im­mi­grants who have been wait­ing their turn.

“It can’t be an easy so­lu­tion,” Weiss said, adding that it would be wrong to re­ward those who broke U.S. im­mi­gra­tion laws.

Some of the con­cerns about il­le­gal im­mi­grants still linger. At a smoke-filled bil­liard par­lor in Wood­bridge, Jan Hayes, a 30year-old restau­rant cook, said he feared his job would be taken by an il­le­gal im­mi­grant will­ing to work for lower wages. “They’re kind of tak­ing over,” he said.

But Bar­bara Parsels, a flo­ral de­signer from Manas­sas, said she felt the in­flux of im­mi­grant la­bor had played a pos­i­tive role in the county’s eco­nomic progress.

“I’m all for strength­en­ing our bor­ders and check­ing ID, so I think that’s all good,” Parsels said. “But for the peo­ple who are al­ready here and work­ing to be able to get a way to stay? I think that’s good too.”

Th­ese days, many in Prince Wil­liam look at the bur­geon­ing na­tional de­bate on im­mi­gra­tion and rec­og­nize the arc of their own jour­ney — the heated rhetoric, the hurt feel­ings, the clashes of ide­ol­ogy, and the even­tual agree­ment to search for com­mon ground.

With the soft­en­ing of the orig­i­nal law and the re­duc­tion in so­cial prob­lems since then, both sides have claimed a mea­sure of vic­tory.

“The num­ber of il­le­gal aliens seems to be lower than it was,” said Greg Letiecq, who headed Help Save Manas­sas and was one of the law’s most vo­cal pro­po­nents. “Day la­borer ac­tiv­ity has de­creased, and res­i­den­tial over­crowd­ing . . . seems to be al­most en­tirely abated.”

Ste­wart, who is cur­rently run­ning for Vir­ginia lieu­tenant gov­er­nor, said he in­tends to keep the is­sue alive in the race. Both he and Letiecq blasted mod­er­ate Repub­li­cans who have en­dorsed a bi­par­ti­san pro­posal for a path to le­gal­iza­tion for those now here il­le­gally.

But other county Repub­li­cans say they sup­port the pro­posal. Thomas says he likes what he is hear­ing from Sen. Marco Ru­bio (R-Fla.) and hopes a path to cit­i­zen­ship can be achieved in a mea­sured way.

“I think folks re­al­ize that you can’t keep hav­ing the same de­bate year af­ter year,” he said. “The de­mo­graph­ics are chang­ing. ... We’ve got to fig­ure out a way to as­sim­i­late th­ese folks.”

The study by the Univer­sity of Vir­ginia, com­mis­sioned by the county, found that while His­pan­ics in Prince Wil­liam re­ported a plunge in their qual­ity of life and their level of trust in po­lice in 2007 and 2008, th­ese mea­sures have since bounced back. Lev­els for other groups re­mained rel­a­tively steady. The study noted that im­mi­grants make up only a small per­cent­age of those ar­rested for se­ri­ous crimes.

Po­lice of­fi­cials in Prince Wil­liam ar­gue that it was outreach and em­pa­thy, not force and fear, that en­abled them to weed out se­ri­ous law­break­ers with­out los­ing the con­fi­dence of most Lati­nos. (The de­part­ment ended its af­fil­i­a­tion with the fed­eral ICE pro­gram last year.)

“We tried to calm th­ese fears and ex­plain ex­actly what we would and would not do,” Deane said. “As a re­sult, we were able to re­gain the His­panic com­mu­nity’s trust and build re­spect on both sides.”

Thomas, who also chairs the City of Manas­sas Repub­li­can Com­mit­tee, said that as the con­ver­sa­tion has moved on to the na­tional arena, “I think that folks on my side of the de­bate are a lit­tle bit more open . . . The ci­ti­zens that were in­volved on the other side, they’re our neigh­bors. They’re not bad peo­ple, they just dis­agree.”

Schloss­berg, the ac­tivist who once re­ceived threat­en­ing emails, said she hopes the lessons of her com­mu­nity will be re­flected on the na­tional stage.

“I think what you see is the coun­try go­ing the way of Prince Wil­liam County, where things got really heated, and I think even the peo­ple who be­lieved im­mi­gra­tion should be dealt with started get­ting un­com­fort­able with all the rhetoric,” she said.

“There is a sense that we en­gaged in a nasty de­bate, and san­ity won.”

PHO­TOS BY JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST

Top, peo­ple gather at the Palace on Feb. 3 in Wood­bridge in Prince Wil­liam County, which was a key bat­tle­ground for im­mi­gra­tion in the Washington area. Above, Ti­mothy Smith, left, of Wood­bridge and Devon Goeller of Lor­ton. “I think im­mi­gra­tion is great,” said Goeller, “but if you’re go­ing to want to live here, you should want to be­come a cit­i­zen.”

PHO­TOS BY JAHI CHIKWENDIU/THE WASHINGTON POST

Fam­i­lies wait to see tax con­sul­tants at Union His­pana Mul­tiser­vices on Feb. 2 in Manas­sas. Ar­eas of Prince Wil­liam County are home to many work­ing- and mid­dle-class im­mi­grants, both doc­u­mented and not. Be­low, Isai Flores Diaz, 5, of Wood­bridge looks at his new glasses in the of­fice of oph­thal­mol­o­gist Babur B. La­teef, a Pak­istani im­mi­grant. A photo gallery is avail­able at post­lo­cal.com.

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