Flashpoint in a national debate
County’s crackdown on illegal immigration raises issue statewide
- December 31, 2007
By Joan Hennessy
Juan Manuel Martinez traveled 1,700 miles from Mexico, dodging border patrol and crossing six states, to work in Northern Virginia. There he found a booming economy and an employer willing to hire someone with no documentation. That employer, Richard Eversole, president and manager of a concrete firm, had rented apartments where Martinez and other immigrants lived, according to
court records. Riding to work in pickup trucks with Department of Defense stickers on the windshield, Martinez toiled at a construction site in Quantico, the U.S. Marine Corps base that is also home to the FBI Academy.
But a year ago, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents arrested Eversole, 58, and Martinez, 24, and detained other illegal immigrants working on the site. Eversole eventually pleaded guilty to harboring illegal aliens and was sentenced to two years probation with the first six months in home confinement. Martinez, who had been deported in 2004 while previously working for Eversole, was sent back to Mexico.
The laborers were not security threats. Nonetheless, the case was noted on the ICE Web page — an object lesson for wayward employers and illegal immigrants.
Many Virginians, however, don’t think the lesson has been learned. The growing number of illegal immigrants in Northern Virginia has fueled anger about their
increasing expense to hospitals, schools, jails and police departments. Businesses hiring undocumented workers “should know they are hurting everybody,” says
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. “Everybody is paying the cost.”
Tensions over illegal immigrants boiled over last summer. Prince William attracted national attention when it joined the ranks of localities attempting to
curb illegal immigration. Prince William’s action sparked protests and squabbling with some Northern Virginia neighbors, but a number of other Virginia
counties have followed its lead.
The growing focus on illegal immigration threatens to put the hiring practices of Virginia industries that rely on foreign-born employees, such as
construction and landscaping, in the crosshairs of a volatile national debate. Many Northern Virginia companies are scrambling to find workers in a tight job
market while having no quick and reliable system for checking the legal status of immigrants, says Tony Howard, president and CEO of the Loudoun County
Chamber of Commerce. “The vast majority of local businesses are doing their level best to adhere to the law,” says Howard, whose organization supports
comprehensive immigration reform.
An affluent suburban county such as Prince William would appear to be an unlikely spot for a revolt against illegal immigration. But politics, not economics,
has been behind the issue nationwide, says Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the Washington-based American Immigration Law Foundation. “We did a study
looking at the 140 local ordinances that have been passed in various locations, and we were surprised to find that the vast majority of places that had
passed these initiatives have lower unemployment rates than the national average,” he says. “The economic indicators suggest this isn’t an issue that is
plaguing those communities.”
But Stewart, the Prince William County supervisor, believes Johnson is missing the point. The major concern, he says, “is the impact on the overall quality
of life reflected in a number of things,” such as gang violence, overtaxed emergency rooms, and overcrowded homes and schools.
An estimated 12 million illegal immigrants, a number equivalent to the population of Pennsylvania, live in the United States. From 1990 to 2000, the number
in Virginia increased 115 percent to 103,000, according to a federal government analysis. The Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies says that
number now has grown to 259,000, 3 percent of the commonwealth’s total residents.
Immigrants, both legal and illegal, have been drawn to Arlington, Fairfax, Loudoun and Prince William counties — Washington, D.C., suburbs where unemployment
hovers around 2 percent and a housing boom made construction work plentiful until last year. The demographic change has been dramatic in Prince William,
which has a population of 357,503. The number of foreign-born residents, now 78,371, has doubled during the past seven years.
Northern Virginia became a flashpoint in the immigration debate two years ago. The Herndon Town Council opened a center for day laborers in an effort to keep
them from gathering in a convenience store parking lot. Opponents charged that the town was coddling illegal immigrants. The mayor and two councilmen were
defeated in the next election. The new council eventually closed the center after a judge ruled it must be open to all residents, legal and illegal.
This summer, federal efforts at immigration reform died in the U.S. Senate. Less than two weeks later, Prince William supervisors approved a resolution that
would require police to check the status of anyone in custody suspected of being an illegal immigrant. A week later, Loudoun County’s supervisors directed
its staff to see what steps it could take to curb the flow of illegal immigrants.
Since then supervisors in several Virginia counties have grappled with a variety of proposals attacking the immigration issue. Spotsylvania and Culpeper
counties, for example, have passed resolutions making English their official language. Culpeper also has spearheaded the formation of the Coalition on
Illegal Aliens. Representatives from a dozen counties and towns showed up for the organizational meeting of the group, which will focus on effects of illegal
immigration on safety, local services and law enforcement.
But if the anti-illegal immigration movement has gained a following, it also has produced a backlash. Prince William officials say its crackdown plan, which
was finalized in a 12-hour meeting in October, will involve extensive police training to avoid racial profiling. Nonetheless, the county’s action provoked
protests by Hispanic groups and a lawsuit by 22 civil rights activists. (The suit, which charged the measure is unconstitutional, was dismissed in early
December but could be refiled with new plaintiffs.) Also, Linda Chavez, chairwoman of the Virginia advisory committee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights,
accused the county of failing to collect enough information before it acted.
Neighboring Fairfax, Arlington and Alexandria have refused to join the crackdown movement. Arlington supervisors passed a resolution saying that the county
complies with immigration laws but “rejects policies and practices that promote discrimination, hostility, abuse, exploitation and fear of government.”
At the state Capitol, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine says he supports recommendations that State Police check the immigration status of people suspected of
involvement in gangs, drugs and violent crime. But he warned that anti-illegal immigration measures could deter foreign companies considering Virginia as a
location. “I think the business community is rightfully concerned that we not pass immigration laws that put out any kind of a xenophobic message or suggest
that Virginia isn’t welcoming,” he says.
Many Republicans championed a tough stance on immigration in the November elections with mixed results. GOP incumbents were re-elected to Prince William’s
Board of Supervisors, but four Republicans on the nine-member Loudoun Board lost to Democrats. “Immigration is a powerful issue but not a magic bullet,”
says Stephen Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington.
Some localities have considered imposing penalties on businesses that hire illegal aliens. But confirming a worker’s legal status can be difficult because
of the widespread availability of fake documents, says Sam McTyre, an Alexandria-area immigration lawyer. The federal government’s I-9 forms, which verify
legal status, require employers to act as “mini-immigration” officials, he says. “Employers never understood the form. They were in no position to say, ‘This
looks fake.’ If it wasn’t [fake], they could be taken to court by the employee.”
Some businesses rely on E-Verify, a system provided by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. Using Social Security numbers, E-Verify is supposed to
notify businesses when an employee does not have documentation. But Dolores Esser, Virginia’s employment commissioner, said in a recent presentation to the
Virginia Commission on Immigration that the system doesn’t always correctly identify legitimate documents. “It is problematic,” Esser said. “If someone has
become a U.S. citizen, sometimes the information hasn’t been updated.”
But critics believe companies can do more to avoid hiring illegal immigrants. Del. Bob Marshall, R-Manassas, says business owners have told him that “they
are undercut constantly by people who charge prices that you could not charge if you are not hiring illegals.”
The legislator asked the Virginia attorney general’s office if localities could require companies to sign affidavits stating they would not knowingly hire
illegal aliens. The answer was no. “It is my view that pre-emption by federal law severely limits state or local efforts to further prohibit the employment
of illegal aliens,” Stephanie L. Hamlett, a deputy attorney general, wrote in an opinion. “It further is my view that a locality may not adopt an ordinance
that requires a business to sign an affidavit indicating it would not knowingly hire illegal aliens.”
The opinion influenced deliberations in Loudoun, which had considered penalizing businesses hiring illegal immigrants. The final measure requires companies
that contract with the county to comply with federal immigration laws. Illegal immigration is a problem that should be fixed by Congress, says Keith
Cheatham, vice president of government affairs at the Virginia Chamber of Commerce. “It’s not a pretty picture and it’s not a simple world. It begs for a
federal solution, which would make more sense than 50 different state solutions.”