- The Washington Times - Friday, February 27, 2009

Anti-illegal immigration policies in Prince William County were in part fueled by changing demographics and an unprepared government, a study has found.

Researchers at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, spent a year examining population, social, political and economic trends that preceded the passing of a 2007 county resolution, which in part authorizes police to enforce federal immigration law. Immigrant rights groups have said that the policy, which drew national attention, has created strife between Hispanic immigrants and police and spurred an exodus of Hispanics.

With that, and considering the nation’s economic downturn, the study called on Prince William leaders to revisit their policy. It said that the county’s ability to weather the financial crisis will depend on its success in attracting new homeowners and retaining businesses.

“They probably would like to be known as a welcoming, cosmopolitan, diverse place, and this episode has somewhat tarnished that reputation,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings and one of the study’s authors.

One of the country’s fastest-growing counties in terms of Hispanic population, Prince William’s overall population more than doubled between 1980 and 2006, and its immigrant population exploded to more than 14 times its size in 1980, the Brookings study said. Jobs and housing lured immigrants and native-born newcomers to the Virginia county.

The study found that as many Hispanics and other minorities settled in older neighborhoods, some longtime Prince William residents felt the nature of their community change. They heard more Spanish being spoken, saw overcrowded homes and in some cases, a rise in street crime. Some perceived that their quality of life was diminishing, the study said.

Complaints to the government soared and it was initially not staffed to handle them, the study said, nor prepared to communicate “with new residents who were often the target of such complaints.”

“I think there was frustration and sort of pent-up frustration, and that led to activism on the grass-roots level,” to pressure the local government to take action, Ms. Singer said.

The county became one of a few in the Washington area that has cracked down on illegal immigration in recent years. In Virginia’s Loudoun County and Maryland’s Frederick County, law enforcement authorities also are trained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to enforce federal immigration law.

Although he had not read the report closely, Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, said Wednesday that the 2007 resolution was spurred by a rash of crimes committed by unauthorized immigrants as well as complaints from residents about housing overcrowding.

He said the county has always been racially and ethnically diverse, and to say swift demographic changes helped contribute to the local legislation was “absolutely incorrect.”

Mr. Stewart said officials don’t intend to re-evaluate the county policy.

“Through a lot of painful discussion, we have come up with a policy that the vast majority of the community is happy with and is effective,” he said.

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