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22 Jan, 2010 21:48

Local cops take on illegal immigrants

Because of a lack of federal immigration reform, many counties in the United States have decided to take the matter into their own hands.

 US President Barack Obama has said that immigration reform is one of his top priorities for his first term, but with healthcare, Afghanistan and the economy taking up much of his time, it seems as if the issue has fallen by the wayside. As a result, many American counties have decided to take the issue into their own hands.

Prince William County, Virginia is one area where federal agents have trained local cops to be the front line of the immigration issue. Many see Prince William as an experiment for what immigration enforcement could look like in the future. On any given day, local officer Gary Mendoza will see crowds of day laborers waiting for work.

Day laborers have become a common sight in Prince William in recent years. Studies show that almost 80 percent of day laborers are illegal immigrants. 

"They're going to have to look for work and they do it over here, sometimes we get calls…complaints from citizens," said Mendoza. 

However, long-time residents of this suburban county just a short drive from Washington D.C. want them gone.

"If you live next to a house with three or four bedrooms and there's 20 people crammed into it who all appear to be day laborers and all of the trash and noise and potential safety issues around that, it really hits people home. It's their neighborhood, their street, their personal environment, where they’re affected," said Greg Letiecq, who helped pass a new law to get illegal immigrants out of the county.

 The law allows local police officers to check the immigration status of anyone who gets arrested. Some see Letiecq's approach as heroic, others call him a bigot. Critics of the policy say it gives officers the right to target Latin Americans, illegal or not. 

"I think the trust between the community and the police was destroyed, completely destroyed. I haven’t seen Latino people calling the police except in extreme cases," said Ricardo Juarez, an activist from the group Mexicans without Borders.

Juarez came to the US from Mexico illegally 15 years ago. Since then he's paid taxes, held a steady construction job, and sent his son to the local schools. To Juarez, Prince Williams is his home just as much as it is Letiecq’s. 

"We not only work here, we not only sleep here, we also spend our money here in many different ways so there are many different ways immigrants contribute to the economical growth of the county," Juarez said.

Today Juarez has a hotline for members of his community who need help. He gets several calls a day from friends in trouble.

"If you're driving on the street and you are Latino and you have a cop on your back you must be afraid. It’s a sense that is product or consequence of the policy," he said.

Another consequence of the policy has been an exodus of Latinos from Prince William County. 

"It was amazing, we were watching overcrowded houses just empty out in the middle of the night along with most of the appliances and copper piping and that kind of stuff, but it was happening everywhere that the problems that existed in their neighborhoods with certain houses were disappearing," Letiecq said.

But for some like Juarez, those problems were real people who left the county out of fear.

 "I have a friend…she took the decision to leave this city and the county because well she said is that she don't want her daughter and her son to grow up in this environment with hate and racism," Juarez said.

On the same ground that the American civil war was fought to empower minorities, it seems that a new battle over immigration is just beginning.