Hispanic population growth down in Prince William
Prince William County's policy on checking the status of immigrants may have had some effect on the growth of the county's Hispanic population, which now lags behind other jurisdictions, according to a University of Virginia study.
Released Tuesday by the university's Center for Survey Research, the study finds that from 2,000 to 6,000 immigrants, both legal and illegal, have left Prince William in the past few years.
The study also reported that illegal immigrants have committed only a small percent of serious crimes in the county, about six percent.
The study -- which cost about $385,000 -- was requested by county police and officials and is meant to address the effects of a policy passed in 2007 and modified in 2008 that requires police officers to check the immigration status of all people arrested on suspicion of violating state and federal law. The original policy required police officers to check the immigration status of people whom they had probable cause to believe were here illegally.
While the study indicates that some of the decrease in the Hispanic population is attributable to the police policy, study officials note that the policy was implemented at the time of the economic recession, mortgage crisis and downturn of the construction business.
Because of those factors and the fact the county modified its policy to be less controversial and has a well-resourced, police department, the lessons of Prince William's experience should be applied with "great caution" in other jurisdictions, said Thomas Guterbock, director for U-Va's center for survey research and one of the study's authors.
Before 2006, the county saw explosive growth in its Hispanic population, almost doubling between 2000 and 2005. The growth rate leveled off after the implementation of the immigration status checks. But the Hispanic populations in the rest of the Washington region continued to grow, the report says.
The report's authors say that Hispanics are avoiding moving to Prince William, which had hoped to create an immigration policy without damaging its reputation as a welcoming place to live.
Yet, while those on the outside might still have concerns with immigration status checks, distrust of county government among Hispanics who remain in Prince William has subsided, the study states.
That change in attitude, the report says, can be attributed to the modified police policy, community outreach and lesser coverage of the issue by anti-immigrant groups and the media. About 76 percent of county residents said they were satisfied with how the policy has been implemented. Many of those who were dissatisfied said it was because they didn't agree with the policy, the study said.
"The people who implemented this law are still in power...people still fear being persecuted...but it is getting a little better," Prince William resident Carlos Aragon, 59, said. "And, a lot of people don't want to come to the county because they are afraid. They say 'If there is an accident, even if it's not my fault, they may deport me.'"
The study finds that initial fears that the policy would lead to racial profiling did not materialize. A single lawsuit alleging racial profiling was filed against the Prince William police department but was dismissed in court, the report said.
Aragon, who hosts a Spanish morning radio show, said he disagrees with the study on that issue. "I feel there was racial profiling, and that's the reason why everyone started to leave," Aragon said. "The Hispanic businesses and malls are empty. You used to see 100 people at the shopping center, and after the resolution, you'd see five. You noticed the difference."
Concerns were raised about racial profiling when the policy was passed. But those in favor of the policy believed it could help weed out the illegal immigrants who were committing crimes and mitigate residential crowding and day labor sites they associated with the Hispanic population.
Prince William's overall crime rate has been declining over the past 10 years, said Christopher Koper, director of research at Police Executive Research Forum. He, along along with Tim Carter, a criminologist from James Madison University, also helped with the report. In 2009, only six percent of those arrested for serious crimes were illegal immigrants, Koper said, noting the same goes for the less serious crimes.
"We don't see any evidence that the increase in immigrant population had led to any increase in the overall crime rate," Koper said. "The policy did not affect most types of crime and disorder."
Koper said aggravated assault in the county significantly dropped between 2006 and 2008. But he said it's not known if the decrease was caused by changes in crime reporting or is attributable to a drop in immigrant offenders and victims.
Koper said most of the arrests of illegal immigrants -- about 70 percent -- were for drunk driving, public drunkenness and driving without a license.
| November 16, 2010; 5:20 PM ET
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