News and views from the award-winning author of the novels The Skinny Years, America Libre, House Divided and Pancho Land

Monday, June 23, 2008

Anti-immigrant laws hurt Virginia county

In May, I wrote about the unvarnished bigotry behind a series of anti-immigrant laws passed in Virginia’s Prince William County, a suburban community near Washington D.C. Enacted in 2007, the county statutes mandate an immigration status check for anyone questioned by the police - even for a minor traffic violation. In addition, county leaders have banned any type of public services to illegal immigrants despite the fact that illegal immigrants cannot obtain welfare or food stamps anywhere in the United States. The real intent behind the laws was revealed in April when Chairman of the County’s Board of Supervisors Corey A. Stewart told the Washington Post: “The resolution is clearly working. It is driving down the non-English-speaking portion of the schools and saving us millions of dollars.” Now, hard times have come to Prince William County and the anti-immigrant message the county commissioners tried to send has not helped.

After growing at a frantic pace, the building boom in Prince William County has evaporated. The unfinished remnants of abandoned building projects dot the landscape. Homeowners who once scrambled to get in on the bonanza now find themselves stuck with houses and condos plummeting in value. Feeding the county’s slump is “the perception that we are backward,” according to resident Katherine M. Gotthardt.

Gotthardt told the Washington Post she thinks it's a waste of time and money for the police to check the immigration status of everyone they question. She would rather see the county invest in fire department staffing, affordable housing and schools. “They don't seem like they are committed to education and social services,” Gotthardt said. “It's going to take them a long time to climb out of this.”

Prince William County has "damaged its image as a good place to do business,” said Stephen Fuller, director of George Mason University Center for Regional Analysis in a recent Washington Post article. The lesson here is clear: a community that caves in to political pressure from the xenophobic fringe may be seen as a hostile place to everyone.

Raul Ramos y Sanchez