Immigration Law Divides Washington DC-Area Community
Immigration Law Divides Washington DC-Area Community
DALE CITY, Virginia — Both sides of the U.S. immigration debate have tried to claim victory after the Supreme Court's ruling on Arizona’s tough immigration law.  The Court upheld a provision of the law that allows local police to check the immigration status of people stopped or detained on some other legitimate basis.  But critics argue there are other unintended consequences of these laws that could invite future legal challenges.

Francisca Sorto is the owner of "El Rinconcito Latino" restaurant in Prince William County, Virginia, where she serves up specialties like tamales from her native El Salvador.

"“My employee [count] is 22 in the past, now only one,” Sorto said. 

After she opened, the restaurant was often filled.  But in the next few weeks she will close for good, due to lack of business.  She says many of her mostly-Latino customers left Prince William County after an immigration law similar to Arizona’s was enacted in 2007.

“The people leave for Prince William County law.  Because it is they escape the law," Sorto said.  "They no [longer] want to live in Prince William County.”

Prince William County is a suburban community south of Washington D.C.  Twenty percent of its legal residents are Latino.  There is also an illegal immigrant population.  According to police, some illegal immigrants wait at this convenience store looking for work as day laborers.  

The part of the Arizona law the Supreme Court upheld last month requires police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain or arrest.  The Prince William law only requires officers to check after an arrest.

County Supervisor Corey Stewart says the law became necessary after several high-profile crimes involving illegal immigrants.

“There has been a substantial decrease in violent crime since we adopted the policy," Steward said.  "According to Prince William County Police statistics, the violent crime rate has come down almost 48 percent.”

Many in the Prince William County police force have had concerns about the policy.  Chief of Police Charlie Deane says that is why officers check immigration status only after someone is arrested.

“We felt that it was lawful, but that it was very high-risk policy," he said.  "Prior to arrest puts officers in circumstances that they can be sued by those that say they aren’t doing enough and those that say they are doing too much.”

Community activists like Aracely Panameno say beyond the economic impact, and legal issues, the law has divided the community.  She recalls someone leaving a note on her car telling to go back to her native El Salvador.  As an American citizen she was deeply offended.

“I felt the divisiveness and the hatred," she said.  "And I couldn’t go back anywhere because this is home.”

When the Supreme Court upheld the part of Arizona's law that allows police to check immigration status, it did so with a caveat.  The court invited those effected to challenge the law in court.  To date, there have been no successful challenges to Prince William County's similar law.  But the ruling leaves the door open.