Mon, Aug 27, 2007 - Page 7 News List

Virginia officials target illegal migrants

NEW APPROACH Two countries have passed resolutions aimed at denying public services to illegal immigrants and more local governments are looking to follow suit


Ines Olivia Martinez wonders if her family will be denied medical care in the US. Even her mentally disabled 13-year-old son has been anxiously pointing out police cars amid fears of a local crackdown on illegal immigrants.

Resolutions to deny a potentially wide range of public services to illegal immigrants have thrust two northern Virginia counties into the US immigration debate.

The measures passed last month in Prince William and Loudoun counties join a flurry of recent efforts by local governments across the US that believe the federal government has not done enough to stop illegal immigration.

But while other jurisdictions have focused largely on landlords and employers who knowingly rent to and hire illegal immigrants, the Virginia resolutions take a more direct approach. The National Association of Counties says the two counties are the first it knows of to pass measures aimed at denying services.

They probably will not be the last. Officials in other Virginia counties have said they plan to follow suit, and the sponsor of the Prince William resolution says he has gotten e-mails from all over the country praising his efforts.

The new approach comes as some jurisdictions back off plans to crack down on landlords and employers following a federal court ruling last month that struck down a law in Hazleton, Pennsylvania.

The much-copied law would have imposed fines on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and denied business permits to those who employ them.

Hazleton on Thursday filed a notice of appeal in federal court, although it could take up to six months before the appeal is heard.

The northern Virginia measures are also likely to face legal challenges. The Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund has threatened to sue Prince William County. Other groups, including the American Civil Liberties Union, say they fear service restrictions will result in discrimination, but are waiting to see how the crackdown will be implemented before taking legal action.

Critics, however, say the resolutions are a racist reaction to profound demographic changes in Prince William and Loudoun, two of the fastest-growing counties in the Washington area. Together, the counties account for 8 percent of Virginia's population, with more than 600,000 residents.

According to US census estimates released this month, Prince William's Hispanic population has more than doubled since 2000, to nearly 70,000 last year. Non-Hispanic whites account for a little more than half of the population, down from about two-thirds in 2000. In Loudoun, the share of minorities increased from 20 percent to 32 percent.

Proponents blame illegal immigrants for changing the character of the region, accusing them of packing too many people into single-family homes and failing to learn English.

For Martinez -- who has lived in Manassas, in Prince William County, for two years -- the resentment against illegal immigrants came as a surprise.

"It broke my heart," the 41-year-old Mexico City native said of the measure. "We were all thinking there would be an amnesty" declared by the federal government.

In Loudoun and Prince William, officials are still studying which public services legally can be withheld and how such restrictions could be implemented.

The resolutions say emergency medical care will not be denied, and federal restrictions already control many other services. For instance, the US Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that children cannot be kept out of school on the basis of immigration status, while food stamps are off-limits to illegal immigrants.

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