While Arizona’s new immigration law has been called the toughest in the nation, it wasn’t the first government to try a strict enforcement approach to the immigration problem.
In stunning similarity to Arizona’s S1070, a Virginia county in 2007 mandated its police to check a person’s immigration status if they had a probable cause to believe that he or she was in the country illegally.
But under intense pressure from county law-enforcement officials and residents, that strict provision was only in effect for two months before the policy was softened to apply only to suspects who are arrested.
Nevertheless, the impact of the policy in Virginia’s Prince William County offers some insight into what Arizona may experience as local police attempt to enforce the state’s immigration law.
Overcrowding at apartment buildings and loitering in the county declined as advocates of the policy had hoped, according to an initial University of Virginia study, which was published about a year after the county’s revised policy went into effect.
A full study is expected to be published this year.
The evidence indicated that a modest number of migrants, both legal and illegal, left the county as a result of the policy. Reports from various sources showed fewer births and a drop in English language learners in schools. Anecdotal evidence also suggested an out- migration, such as fewer Hispanics in grocery stores.
But as migrants left, foreclosures and problems related to vacant houses also increased substantially. The study, however, noted that the period also coincided with the severe economic downturn, notably the housing bust and the ensuing mortgage crisis, so it’s difficult to disentangle the reasons why migrants left.
Another notable unintended consequence from the policy was the significant decline in Hispanics’ trust in government, their desire to continue living in the county and their perception of the quality of life in Prince William County. This decline in trust in government also spilled over to African-Americans.
Prof. Tom Guterbock, one of the study’s researchers, said there has since been some recovery in the two groups’ attitudes toward the county based on a 2009 survey.
“I think that some of the concerns that I have heard being raised about the Arizona law are similar to concerns that were heard in Prince William when the law was introduced, and there were fewer adverse consequences in Prince William than some expected,” Guterbock said. “Like any other social policy, like anything else in politics, the actual policy is going to work out differently than either its proponents or its opponents suggest.”
In the end, however, the study credited the police for implementing the policy smoothly.
Overall, initial fears of lawsuits over allegations of racial profiling weren’t realized. And while the policy’s implementation cost money and staff time — the reported price tag was $1.2 million in fiscal 2008 — it did not disrupt the police’s day-to-day operations, the study said.
Prince William County, to be clear, is no Arizona.
Its population of 380,000 is but a fraction of Arizona’s 6.6 million.
Its Hispanic population stands at 19.1 percent as of the latest census; Arizona has a bigger share at 30.1 percent.
That county experienced explosive growth in its Hispanic population in the last decade — from 9.7 percent in 2000 to almost 20 percent in 2009. Arizona, meanwhile, has always had a sizable Hispanic population.
CONCERNS DROVE CHANGES
In response to numerous concerns raised about the policy, the county’s supervisors amended it two months after it went into effect.
The county attorney was increasingly wary about the probability of lawsuits over racial profiling. Meanwhile, the police department asked for funds to install a camera on each patrol car to protect officers from allegations of racial profiling.
The debate also evolved into whether the county could afford to implement the original policy. The supervisors ultimately concluded they couldn’t afford the cameras and made the revision.
The revised policy removed “probable cause” and required an immigration check only after an arrest.
“The reason that it was changed is the County Attorney’s Office recommended the change because the original policy left the county open to potential racial profiling lawsuits,” said Corey Stewart, chairman of the county’s Board of Supervisors.
But Elena Schlossberg, a blogger and a critic of the original policy, said the reality was that there was a feeling that things had gone too far and that the issue had bitterly divided the county more than anybody envisioned.
“The climate in the county was just very frightening,” she said. “I think what they (supervisors) realized was that they had to figure out how to stop the train.”
Like some of Arizona’s police chiefs, that county’s top law- enforcement officer also raised familiar apprehensions about requiring officers to check people’s immigration status on suspicion that someone is in the country illegally.
Charlie Deane, Prince William County’s police chief, was concerned about alienating migrant communities, potentially leading to an increase in unsolved crimes and underreporting of crimes by minorities, as well as exposing the county to allegations of racism.
To help allay fears, police unveiled a high-profile public campaign about how they were going to execute the new policy. They said they would focus on illegal aliens who committed crimes and they would protect crime victims and cooperative witnesses regardless of their immigration status.
There were no immigration sweeps similar to those done by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
The police also created a Criminal Alien Unit, whose members received federal training and authority to enforce immigration laws.
“(We said) we were not going to be involved in racial profiling,”
Deane, the police chief, told the Arizona Capitol Times. “It was very important that staff, our officers understand that we mean what we say, and our officers certainly understand that racial profiling is wrong on several levels.”
As lawsuits and boycotts against Arizona have materialized, the Prince William County supervisor who proposed the original policy said the state should stand firm.
“Do not back down,” said John Stirrup. “The citizens absolutely support what’s going on.”
“What is going to happen,” said Stewart, the board’s chairman, “is that crime will decrease in Arizona and illegal aliens will flee Arizona and go into neighboring states and as that happens, there will be a great deal of pressure put on neighboring states — Nevada, New Mexico, California — to (enact) similar polices to Arizona.”
The law’s impact on the crime rate wasn’t conclusive. Crimes were slightly up from 2007 to 2008, but some serious crimes, like aggravated assault, went down. But to begin with, illegal immigrants made up only a small percentage of those arrested for violent crimes — about 3 percent, the study noted.
Critics of the county policy, such as Schlossberg, said Arizona should be wary of its own law.
“What people didn’t realize when they created this fear in the immigrant community was that they weren’t going to have the people who are undocumented leave,” Schlossberg said. “People did leave and with them they took their spending power.”