National

Communities take very different paths on illegal immigrants

Day laborers gather in a shopping center parking lot in Woodbridge, Va.
Day laborers gather in a shopping center parking lot in Woodbridge, Va. Rafael Suanes / MCT

WOODBRIDGE, Va. — As her husband steps out the back door of their suburban rental home and into the early light each morning, Veronica makes the sign of the cross. Keep my husband safe, she prays to the Virgin Mary, and away from the police.

Jorge goes to find work as a construction laborer, and Veronica mostly stays inside, tending to the children. Since early summer, she's been afraid to take her three boys to the park, afraid to visit the Latino market up the road.

The couple, who didn't want their surnames used because they're in the country illegally, are among tens of thousands of undocumented aliens who are hunkering down after the board of supervisors of Prince William County, Va., decided in June that it would do everything possible to deny services to illegal immigrants. Some leaders want police officers to check immigration status in every encounter with a suspected illegal resident.

Congress been unable to figure out how to deal with the estimated 12 million undocumented residents in the country, and as illegal immigration spreads to suburban and rural regions, local and state governments are enacting their own get-tough measures. The result has been an increasing number of anti-illegal immigrant ordinances, many of them intended to drive undocumented residents out of town.

"If they let us work, if they let us just live . . . ," said Jorge, 33, talking in a sparsely furnished living room as his oldest child sorted crayons from a green school box. "We're just trying to stay alive and keep going. This resolution is very hard, you know?"

Two places — Prince William County, south of Washington, and New Haven, Conn. — are the opposite ends of policies that other local leaders around the country may find themselves considering.

"We hope Prince William County can conduct a national pilot program in what to do to crack down on illegal immigration," said Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Last week, he testified before Congress that it should enable local governments to do more immigration enforcement.

In New Haven, however, city leaders have welcomed immigrants as integral to the community. This summer, New Haven became the first city in the country to issue special identification cards to its undocumented residents, guaranteeing them access to services such as bank accounts.

When the program started in late June, hundreds of residents began lining up at 5 a.m. every day to get the identification cards, said Jessica Mayorga, the city's spokeswoman. "The response has been phenomenal," she said.

The spread of immigrant communities to rural and suburban areas has contributed to the increase in local ordinances, said Steven Camarota of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington research center that wants to reduce immigration. In addition, he said, residents and local politicians became aware of the issue as federal officials pushed it to the top of the news.

"The more Congress debated, the more they thought about it," Camarota said.

In addition to the activity in cities and counties, more than 1,400 immigrant-related bills have been introduced in state capitals, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Many of the new laws are contradictory: Illinois prohibits businesses from enrolling in a federal identification-check program until the system meets accuracy criteria, while Arizona requires businesses to use another ID-check program, according to the national conference.

Advocates say the ordinances, far from making communities safer, will drive immigrants underground and make them fearful of joining civic life or reporting crime.

Immigrant activists have responded loudly. Led by Ricardo Juarez Nava, a group called Mexicanos Sin Fronteras — Mexicans Without Borders — organized a weeklong business boycott, a caravan to Washington and a rally on Labor Day weekend that drew at least 2,000 people to protest Prince William County's move.

"Immigration reform failed, and that's an excuse for anti-immigrant proposals to go forward," said Juarez Nava, an immigrant from Mexico who doesn't discuss his legal status. "Our goal is that the resolution get rescinded."

On the other side of the debate is Greg Letiecq, a father of two small girls who formed a local anti-illegal immigration group called Help Save Manassas. He monitors immigration activity on a blog called Black Velvet Bruce Li and helped draft the county's bill with help from a national organization.

The same week that Jorge and Veronica talked of keeping their children from the playground, Letiecq steered his truck through residential neighborhoods, pointing to houses he said were crowded with illegal immigrants. He said activists from Utah to Florida had called him for help.

"At the local level, we can do something right now," he said. "It's on everybody's radar now."

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