National Immigration Forum

Practical Solutions for Immigrants and America

Blog & Updates

Film Explores Suburban Immigration Turmoil

October 02, 2009 - Posted by Maurice Belanger


9500 Liberty Ave.


In July of 2007, a Virginia suburb of Washington gained the national spotlight when it passed a controversial ordinance giving the police authority to arrest someone if they had “probable cause” to suspect the person was in the country illegally.  Enactment of the ordinance tore the community apart, drove Latinos out of the county, shuttered many businesses that relied on their Latino customers, and made Prince William County number one in the Washington area for housing foreclosures just as the nationwide economic downturn was kicking in.


A new movie provides a fascinating account of the story of the immigration battle in Prince William County, a story not unlike stories that have unfolded elsewhere in the country where demographic change, fear, and ignorance provide a combustible mix ignited by peddlers of hate.


The filmmakers of 9500 Liberty had good access to the leaders of both sides in the debate, and followed them through the various battles in this story. There are many threads—the use of the immigration issue to further political careers; the corrosive effect of extreme rhetoric on the democratic process, as people are (in the beginning) intimidated from speaking out; the outsized influence of extreme elements in the community aided by national anti-immigrant organizations and their supporters; the deleterious effect on law enforcement when a police chief is ordered to enforce a policy he knows will interfere with the ability of his force to protect public safety; the economic consequences of a law that makes a significant part of the community feel unwanted. 


The film also tells the story of the many heroes and heroines who step up to push back on the extremism that has tarnished the reputation of their county.  In the end, the “probable cause” ordinance is replaced by one in which the police check everyone only after they have been arrested for some other reason.


While this compromise may work in a jurisdiction such as Prince William County, where the Police Chief understands the importance of gaining the trust of the entire community, it may not work in jurisdictions with lesser leadership.    


A new report from the Chief Justice Earl Warren Institute on Race, Ethnicity & Diversity looks at the problem of racial profiling in the Criminal Alien Program of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).  Ostensibly, the Criminal Alien Program was to target serious criminal offenders for deportation, removing them from jails after ICE determined the offenders were not in the country legally.  Even if everyone arrested and put in jails is screened through the ICE databases, authorities may still be engaging in racial profiling. 


The Warren Institute found that


“immediately after Irving, Texas law enforcement had 24-hour access (via telephone and video teleconference) to ICE in the local jail, discretionary arrests of Hispanics for petty offenses—particularly minor traffic offenses—rose dramatically.


The profiling occurred not in the screening itself, but in who was arrested in order to run them through the screening process.  The Institute’s examination of arrest data


finds strong evidence to support claims that Irving police engaged in racial profiling of Hispanics in order to filter them through the [Criminal Alien Program] screening system.


It was only after community protests over racial profiling that arrests of Latinos for petty offenses began to decrease. 


The kind of racial profiling and community division experienced by Prince William County and by Irving, Texas, will play out again and again in communities across America as long as Congress fails to act and reform our immigration laws to give undocumented immigrants a way to gain legal status.  Until then, unfortunately, there will always be a Sheriff Joe or a local politician willing to use the fear and ignorance of some to further their own careers at the expense of the undocumented and (more generally) people of color.


Photo by Flickr User Vinh Tran

Crossroads Campaign Solutions