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Virginia Community Approves Measure Aimed at Discouraging Illegal Immigrants

Lawmakers on Tuesday unanimously approved a measure aimed at discouraging illegal immigrants from settling in Virginia's Prince William County.

Hundreds of people packed a meeting before the eight-member Board of Supervisors voted on the proposal, which would permit county workers to ensure people are in the country legally before providing services. It gives county staff 90 days to complete a study of which services could be denied and how such a program would be implemented.

County police will be required to check on the immigration status of anyone they detain if there is probable cause to believe the person is undocumented. Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia, said the true consequences of the measure would be determined by the details, such as the definition of "probable cause."

After the vote, opponents of the measure rallied outside, promising to fight it.

It was the latest in a slew of efforts across the United States to crack down on illegal immigrants at the local level, and is among the most severe proposals. Although the resolution was carefully worded, immigrant rights advocates said they feared the intent was to deny a wide range of services, including medical care, library access and even the federally protected right to schooling. They say such restrictions will inevitably lead to discrimination based on race and ethnicity.

The county's police chief also spoke out strongly against the measure, saying it would diminish cooperation with law enforcement and further strain thinly stretched resources. Chief Charlie T. Deane said restricting access to recreation services would lead to increased crime among young people.

The proposal reflects concerns about the presence of undocumented immigrants in Prince William County, an area about 25 miles southwest of Washington, D.C., that has seen massive change in recent decades. The population increased from 281,000 in 2000 to 347,000 in 2005, according to census figures. The Hispanic population jumped from 9.7 percent of the total to 18 percent in that period.

"When we moved to this area, it was just a regular American community," said Greg Letiecq, the leader of the group Help Save Manassas, which has lobbied strongly in support of the measure. "Six years later it's transformed into something different. It doesn't resemble the American dream that I bought or that I wanted to raise my children in."

The preamble of the resolution, introduced by Supervisor John T. Stirrup, a Republican, blames illegal immigration for "economic hardship and lawlessness in Prince William County."

"Illegal immigration may be encouraged by public agencies within the county by failing to verify immigration status as a condition of providing services," it reads.

Tuesday's meeting was packed far beyond the typical local government meeting. More than 100 people addressed the board, and the county ran a shuttle bus to transport people from an overflow parking lot. Most people couldn't fit in the board room and crowded into the lobby to watch the proceedings on video screens. The fire marshal eventually had to close the doors to the building, and more people gathered outside.

"I am here because it's against justice," said Maria Hernandez, a U.S. citizen and former illegal immigrant from El Salvador, who stood outside the administration building with her yearold son and 3-year-old daughter hanging on her. "How is it possible that our children won't have an education because they are illegal?"

The resolution was modified in response to criticism. It originally called for police to check on the immigration status of all detainees, but the final version requires police to have "probable cause" to run such a check.

The text of the resolution doesn't spell out which services could be refused to illegal immigrants, but says emergency medical care and other services cannot be denied under federal or state laws.

Teresita Jacinto, of the Woodbridge Workers Committee, which works with day laborers in the county, helped organize the large contingent of Latinos who showed up at the meeting. She said the proposal has compounded a growing apprehension in the Hispanic community.

"Families are really afraid. They're not even reporting crimes to the police anymore," Jacinto said.

Omar Jadwat, staff attorney at the Immigrants' Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union, said the Prince William initiative is part of a recent wave of local efforts from Hazelton, Pa., to San Bernadino, Calif., aimed at illegal immigration. The ACLU and other organizations have challenged a number of ordinances, and Jadwat said none of the challenged ordinances is currently being enforced, though some are still in court.

Willis, of the ACLU, said he believes the local efforts would continue until there is some kind of movement in Washington on immigration issues.

"You're seeing frustration at the local level that stems from lack of action at the federal level," he said.