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Study finds high costs, questionable return for Virginia county’s immigration policy

A new study on the impact of anti-illegal immigration policies in Prince William County, Va., found that the Latino population decreased substantially after the policy was implemented in 2007, with a 7,700-person drop in the non-citizen Latino population between 2006 and 2008. (That number accounts for legal and illegal immigrants, but study authors estimated that between 2,000 and 6,000 illegal immigrants left the county.)

Perhaps unsurprisingly, both sides seem to think the study confirms their beliefs: Advocates of the policy said the study showed it was successful in driving out immigrants, while critics pointed to findings that crime and spending were mostly unchanged by the policy.

The study, which was a three-year project by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research, looked at a variety of factors to determine the impact of a policy meant to drive out illegal immigrants. Since it was modified in 2008, the policy has required police officers to check the immigration status when they make arrests. Originally, the policy required checks only if the officer suspected the person was an illegal immigrant — much like Arizona’s SB 1070 — prompting fear of racial profiling and backlash against Latinos.

Although the Latino population dropped following the policy’s implementation, experts cautioned there could be a number of other reasons for the change, such as a sluggish economy and few jobs in sectors like construction:

“I think the policy had an effect on the ground in the direction it was intended, but it also came at a time of a very sharp economic downtown, which also contributed to changes in population … and migration behaviors,” said Brookings Institution demographer Audrey Singer, who focuses on race and U.S. immigration policy. “I think the researchers are being very careful with what they say because they can’t get a very hard estimate.”

The policy was intended to reduce crime and lower spending on social services to illegal immigrants. But the University of Virginia study found that overall crime has been on the decline in Prince William County for the past 10 years — including the years when many undocumented immigrants moved to the country.

Undocumented immigrants only made up a small number — about 6 percent — of those arrested for serious crimes in the county in 2009. The study’s authors said there was no noticeable impact on crime from the immigration enforcement policy and that social service spending remained about the same. Implementing and maintaining the policy cost the county about $3 million.

Although the study found few reports of racial profiling, some Latino residents said fears of profiling still may have led some Latinos to leave the area and harmed the county’s reputation.

What does the study mean for other counties and states that might want to replicate the Prince William County policy? It depends on who is asked. Prince William Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R) said he hopes the study’s findings will help with his push to expand it statewide. But the study’s authors said the lessons from Prince William County should be applied with “great caution” elsewhere.

“This is not a free policy; the board allocated substantial amounts of money” for this, Thomas Guterbock, director of Center for Survey Research, told the Washington Post. “Don’t try this if you don’t want to spend some money.”

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