June 7, 2010
LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP
Virginia’s Prince William County shows that Arizona’s new law won’t create a police state
JOHN J. MILLER
President Obama wasted little time in denouncing Arizona’s new immigration law. “Now, suddenly, if you don’t have your papers and you took your kid out to get ice cream, you’re going to be harassed,” he said at a town-hall meeting in Iowa on April 27. “That’s not the right way to go.”
Rather than imagining a worst-case scenario, Obama might have been better off studying the experience of a county in Virginia. Three years ago, Prince William County took the enforcement of federal immigration laws into its own hands, much as Arizona is now attempting. It went through a period of anguish and revision. Officials faced accusations of racism and xenophobia. They spent months tinkering with their policy, until they finally became comfortable with it. Today, the number of illegal aliens in the county is down — and there have been no sightings of jackbooted thugs at ice-cream parlors.
Prince William County lies about 20 miles south of Washington, D.C. Not so long ago, northern Virginians in Arlington, Alexandria, and Fairfax County regarded a trip across the Occoquan River as a journey into the Old South, where everybody drove a pickup truck and spoke with a twang. As the metropolitan area grew, however, towns such as Manassas and Woodbridge became hubs of affordable housing. They transformed into large bedroom communities, full of government employees and contractors. Prince William became one of the fastest-growing counties in America. (I took part in this trend, moving to the county in 2002.) The population soared to nearly 400,000, more than double what it was a generation ago.
Hispanics were behind much of the boom. In 1990, they made up only 4.6 percent of the county’s residents. Today, that figure is close to 20 percent. Many are immigrants. An unknown number are illegal aliens. Gangs began to form, but they didn’t usher in a crime wave. Between 1995 and 2007, according to police statistics, the rate of crime fell by half.
Yet many locals felt that illegal aliens were eroding their quality of life. “There was a big public outcry, just like we’re seeing in Arizona,” says John Stirrup, a Republican county supervisor. “We kept hearing complaints from citizens about overcrowded homes, with a dozen or more people living in three-bedroom houses. Parking on streets, public drunkenness, loud music at night — everything was becoming a problem because the federal government failed to enforce its own laws. We had to do something.”
So Stirrup offered a resolution, which the board of county supervisors modified and passed unanimously on July 10, 2007. Its most controversial feature involved the verification of citizenship. Police officers who detained people for breaking laws would perform citizenship checks when they believed they were dealing with illegal aliens. The checks would occur even during traffic stops. An editorial in the Washington Post denounced the move as “shameful, hypocritical, and ugly.”
The policy didn’t take effect right away. Instead, the supervisors set in motion a review period in which the police department and public officials devised plans for implementation. Just as the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police has criticized the new law in its state, Prince William County’s police chief, Charlie Deane, expressed reservations about what the supervisors had done. He worried that immigration checks would divert resources from more effective crime-fighting strategies, discourage the reporting of crimes, and make his department vulnerable to racial-profiling lawsuits.
The supervisors pressed ahead anyway. They affirmed their decision at a rancorous, 15-hour board meeting in October. During county races three weeks later, voters reelected every incumbent on the ballot. The fate of Arizona’s lawmakers remains to be seen, but nobody in Prince William County paid a political price for trying to crack down on illegal immigration. Quite the contrary: County chairman Corey Stewart, a Republican who had previously been a candidate only in a low-turnout special election, won handily. This was by no means foreordained. Democrats often run well in Prince William County. In 2008, Obama carried it by a double-digit margin.
At this point, Prince William County’s law was similar in many ways to Arizona’s. As the police department prepared to enforce the policy, however, Deane became more vocal about his concerns. “I continued to be troubled by the possibility of lawsuits that would allege racial profiling,” he says. On a trip to New Jersey, he learned that the state police there had installed video cameras in their patrol cars in order to fend off false accusations. “A light bulb turned on in my head,” he says. “We needed to do what we could to protect our officers.”
So Deane asked for video cameras. The price tag, which included both the cameras themselves and the staff time to review their recordings, came to more than $3 million. The supervisors balked. The county was already feeling the first sting of the housing crisis. To protect the police department from litigation, supervisors narrowed the scope of the enforcement policy, requiring that police officers check citizenship status only in post-arrest situations. Furthermore, officers would perform these checks on all arrestees, not just on those whom they supposed to be illegal aliens. The policy finally went into effect on July 1, 2008. It has been the law in Prince William County ever since — and it may suggest the way in which Arizona’s law will evolve in the months ahead.
If nothing else, Prince William County has not suffered a racial-profiling controversy of the type that Deane once feared. One of the enforcement policy’s most outspoken critics is Nancy Lyall of Mexicans Without Borders, an immigrant-rights group. Since 2007, she has attacked Prince William’s tactics with a fervor that others have devoted to Arizona’s. When I asked whether she could identify a single case of a citizen or legal permanent resident, Hispanic or otherwise, who was mistakenly brought into custody because of racial profiling, she paused. Then she made a reluctant confession: “No.” In a survey, 73 percent of Hispanics said they were satisfied with the overall performance of the police department.
Avoiding the stain of racial profiling is one thing. Controlling illegal immigration is another. Has Prince William’s policy actually accomplished its goals? Unfortunately, the picture is muddled by poor data. “Undocumented” may be a euphemism for illegal, but the word isn’t exactly a misnomer. Illegal aliens often escape the gaze of those who gather statistics. Nobody knows for sure how many lived in the county before the policy. Nobody knows how many live in the county today.
Their numbers are almost certainly down. Morning commuters who drive by the 7-Eleven at the corner of Route 1 and the Prince William Parkway — a popular pick-up spot for day laborers — see many fewer people hanging around its parking lot. A lousy economy explains much of this. The mortgage crisis walloped Prince William County, which has lost thousands of construction jobs. There’s simply not as much work to go around. The enforcement policy probably played a part in downsizing the illegal-alien population. Lyall of Mexicans Without Borders thinks it did. But it’s impossible to know how much.
“I’m convinced that a lot of illegal aliens self-deported because of the policy,” says Stewart. “We sent a powerful message that Prince William County is not welcoming of illegal aliens.”
In the future, it may be possible to make better guesses, especially with respect to crime. The police have started to keep their own immigration records. Last year, they booked 895 illegal aliens in criminal arrests, which accounted for 6 percent of all criminal arrests in the county. No illegal aliens were arrested for murder (out of a dozen total arrests), and relatively few were arrested for other major crimes such as burglary, robbery, or vehicle theft. Most of their offenses were comparatively minor, and they were concentrated in a few areas. Illegal aliens were involved in 27 percent of the arrests for prostitution, 20 percent for public drunkenness, and 13 percent for DUI.
Supporters of the illegal-alien policy are quick to boast that crime is down in Prince William County. They’re correct. In 2009, it hit a 15-year low, according to statistics released by the police in April. Yet the reductions are part of a trend that predates the new enforcement policy by more than a decade, so these figures are difficult to attribute exclusively to a crackdown on illegal immigration. A study released last August by the University of Virginia and the Police Executive Research Forum said that the policy “may have contributed to a drop in violent crime,” but called this conclusion “tentative.” (Since then, the rate of violent crime has actually ticked up, though it remains lower than the average for the last five years.)
A lot of ordinary cops think that the policy has done some good. In a survey conducted last year, about half of the county’s police officers agreed that it’s an effective tool for combating crime. Roughly a third claimed not to have an opinion and the rest thought it hasn’t helped. A strong majority — 73 percent — think the policy has led to illegal aliens leaving the county.
It’s too soon to know whether Prince William County’s enforcement policy has worked, but it’s also clear that it hasn’t failed — if failure means the realization of its critics’ worst fears. Amid the uncertainty, perhaps there’s a lesson here: Give Arizona a chance.