By Arlo Wagner
Months after Prince William County began one of the country's toughest crackdowns on illegal immigrants, officials and residents report signs that substantial numbers of people have left the county, particularly from Hispanic neighborhoods.
Dave Whitlow, town manager of Dumfries, said officials started noticing the change a few months ago when they canvassed communities popular among Hispanic families and found roughly 165 residences vacant among 1,600 houses and town houses. Shopkeepers and teachers of English as a second language also have noticed a drop-off.
"We are having many more leaving," said Mr. Whitlow, who could not estimate what percentage of those leaving were in the United States illegally. "It's been just in the past few months."
In July, the Board of County Supervisors unanimously agreed to have the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) train six police officers and one resident for a Criminal Alien Unit.
The detail began enforcement March 1 and is assisting officers who find probable cause that a suspect in a crime is in the country illegally. Before then, officers were not authorized to make arrests for illegal immigration.
Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart said this week he was not surprised about signs that illegal immigrants were leaving.
"There's no question the police have had the effect," said Mr. Stewart, a Republican who is planning to run for lieutenant governor.
"The message that we are sending is: 'If you are an illegal alien, you are not welcome in Prince William County.' Time surely will show illegal aliens are leaving the county," said Mr. Stewart.
Jason D. Grant, spokesman for the Prince William's Department of Economic Development, said the county has not seen signs of an economic downtown as a result of the crackdown, but officials, merchants and residents said changes are obvious.
Officials in Dumfries — a town of roughly 5,000 residents at the southern tip of Prince William — said about 10 percent of housing units in the town are for sale or in foreclosure.
"I think that's high," said Mr. Whitlow, adding that most of the units are in communities of town houses preferred by Hispanics. "Tax records here have many Hispanic surnames as home buyers. It's been a long time since we've seen an obvious vacancy rate like that."
Last week, county public schools spokesman Ken Blackstone told The Washington Times a recent check of the system's English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) program shows roughly 600 fewer students than on Sept. 30.
But he cautioned people about trying to "connect the dots" between the decrease in students and illegal immigrants leaving the county. The ESOL program serves students who speak many different languages, he pointed out.
Todos Supermarket on Jefferson Davis Highway in Woodbridge began feeling the impact last summer, said owner Carlos Castro, who established the business 18 years ago.
"It has diminished our customers," he said. "We have never had a downturn like this time around."
Mr. Castro said sales have decreased mostly in such nonessential goods as tools, hardware and kitchenware. However, the sales of milk and other foods have remained about the same.
Mexicans Without Borders, among the groups that protested the resolution, agreed yesterday that residents are leaving.
"The evidence is that since the resolution was passed, Latino residents are being driven out," spokeswoman Nancy Lydall said. "More devastating is the effect on the economy. In my neighborhood [Dale City], eight or nine houses are vacant. Ninety percent of the homes are Latino."
County police Chief Charlie T. Deane said Prince William was "at the forefront in this nation of enforcement ... of immigration issues."
He also said the department continues to receive complaints about the behavior of illegal immigrants and others who hang around day-labor sites waiting for work.
However, a day laborer outside a 7-Eleven store in Woodbridge said Tuesday that fewer workers have been coming to the sites since the resolution was passed.
"I don't like to stay out here, but when you have no choice, you have to do it," said the 23-year-old man, who declined to give his name.
Sgt. Kim Chinn, a police spokeswoman, was unable to say how many service calls the Criminal Alien Unit has made in the two weeks since enforcement began. She said the department is still organizing and preparing the report.
Some Hispanic residents worry that police will target them for driving violations and other crimes. But Chief Deane said the new enforcement is not aimed at them.
"We prohibit racial profiling," he said. "The primary core issue is to protect residents. We protect victims regardless of immigration."
There are no official numbers on illegal immigrants. But Hispanics are Prince William's largest minority group, accounting for 24.2 percent of the 346,790 residents, according to the county.
Last year, an estimated 250,000 illegal immigrants were living throughout Virginia, according to the Federation for American Immigration Reform.
Nationally, an estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal immigrants are in the United States, and about 500,000 enter the country each year.