Southern Inhospitality: Playing the Immigration Issue

Congress may be deadlocked on immigration, but municipalities across the nation are working to make life as difficult as possible for illegals.

On a hot August afternoon at the Prince William County Fair in northern Virginia, Greg Letiecq tried to make eye contact with passersby gorging themselves on funnel cakes and cotton candy. Standing before a booth draped with American flags and "Help Save Manassas" signs, Letiecq was enjoying a kind of local celebrity. The Washington Post had recently run a front-page story on how his blog, Black Velvet Bruce Li, had become the "most influential local blog in Virginia." (A previous incarnation, Black Velvet Bruce Lee, was taken down in the wake of a slander suit.) Several days earlier, former Virginia Senator George Allen had visited Letiecq's booth; he and his wife Susan walked away wearing Help Save Manassas stickers.

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All this notoriety came after Letiecq helped draft a series of tough local ordinances targeting illegal immigrants. Unanimously passed by the county Board of Supervisors on July 10, the purposely vague measures aimed to deny illegal aliens "public benefits" and to empower police to question criminal suspects about their immigration status and, if necessary, initiate deportation. County officials are checking to see if the ordinances violate state or federal law; the county's police chief, Charlie Deane, issued a five-page public plea to moderate the proposals, saying they would lead to more crime, higher taxes, and the perception that the county is racist. But Letiecq, a sometime defense-industry programmer, expects the ordinances to be law by year's end. And they'd already produced the desired results, he told me between drags on his cigarette. "They're moving out," he said. "I know a guy who runs a pool hall in Manassas Park, where they have lots of illegals. He says they're moving to Centreville. Some of them are going to Montgomery County in Maryland."

Prince William County lies about an hour southwest of Washington, D.C. For much of its history, it was known primarily for the Civil War battles fought near Manassas, the county seat. Its population was overwhelmingly white and comfortable with the pace of rural life. But as property values in Washington have soared, Prince William County's population has swelled by 60 percent since 1990, with almost half of the increase occurring since 2000. This growth has demanded new houses, shopping malls, parking lots, gas stations, and roads. Construction projects have required cheap labor, which in turn has attracted a large influx of recent immigrants: The proportion of foreign-born residents has ballooned from 6 percent in 1990 to almost 20 percent in 2005. Today one in four students enrolled in the county's school system is Hispanic.

It's a demographic shift playing out all over America, but perhaps nowhere more than in the Washington area—6 of its counties are among the nation's 20 fastest-growing Hispanic population centers. Since Letiecq founded Help Save Manassas in April (modeled after a similar group in nearby Herndon), "Help Save" chapters have begun popping up statewide and spread to Maryland. They represent a growing movement among municipal and county officials who, frustrated by Congress' failure to address the issue, are taking on illegal immigration themselves. According to Michael Hethmon, director of the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which helped craft the Prince William ordinances and is assisting with similar efforts in at least six other states, the sum of these local measures is greater than its parts. "We're testing some really fundamental issues about citizenship and national identity," he told me. "Because of the importance of the issues—national security, civil rights, nationality, privacy—it's better to use local and state efforts, not only as attempts to deal with the problems themselves, but as an essential test bed for, ultimately, a viable federal solution." Letiecq admits the failure of federal immigration reform "helped us grow in numbers and influence." But, he adds, "what really moves an electorate is when these issues are local, when it affects life on your street."

Talk of "illegals" dominates conversation in Prince William. I had gone to the county fair with my wife, herself of Hispanic ethnicity. Within minutes of arriving, we were pulled aside by one of the vendors, a white man in a Hawaiian shirt with sandy, feathered hair and a gold necklace. He could tell we were from out of town, and asked, "You here to see how the other half live? We're okay; we're nice people down here, even the illegals." He agreed to talk about the issue if I didn't use his name. The proposed ordinances had scared illegals, he said. Many now stayed indoors and, if forced to go out, drove slowly for fear of being pulled over. Among county residents, the most common complaints centered on overcrowded houses, which threatened to lower property values, and on public services and school funding being diverted to people who "don't pay taxes." But the vendor also worried the ordinances would scare illegal immigrants from sending their kids to public schools. "You have to educate them," he said. "If you don't, you're just left with a bunch of dumb illegals, and you don't want that." He looked at my wife and joked, "Are you legal?"

Back at the Help Save Manassas booth, volunteers wearing T-shirts emblazoned with "What part of illegal don't you understand?" displayed photographs of garbage-strewn houses and yards. One showed a tent next to an overturned wading pool propped up by a stick—overflow, Letiecq claimed, from a house full of illegals. An elderly woman in a Democratic Party T-shirt confronted a stocky ex-Marine named Steve, asking, "How do you know that the people living in these houses are illegal? Poor people would live like that, too."

"Ma'am, they're illegal. They are," Steve said. "You're in denial."

She later told me Help Save Manassas was closely aligned with the local Republican Party and had taken up the issue of illegal immigration as a matter of political convenience. "It used to be gays. Now it's illegals. They're just looking for ways to scare and divide people." The real issue that Letiecq and his supporters have with the immigrants "is only that they're not quite white."

Letiecq—who derailed Democratic General Assembly candidate Jeff Dion by revealing he's gay, is being sued for defamation by former gop House of Delegates candidate Steve Chapman, and now promotes a blog that impugns Chapman's attorney Fasail Gill as a "terrorist"—insists he is equally opposed to illegals from Canada or Sweden. Regardless, mobilizing the community is too important to worry about offending people's sensibilities. "Around here, numbers is the game," Letiecq said. "We're building a grassroots movement, an issue-advocacy, membership-based organization. We're trying to get really big, really fast."

In that, he seems to be succeeding: Before the county fair, Help Save Manassas' membership was 690. By the end, it had 1,453 members, making it by far the largest anti-illegal-immigration group in the Washington area.

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