Fairfax County, Va.

FAIRFAX, Va. — In his first year as president, Barack Obama oversaw a Department of Homeland Security that deported nearly 400,000 undocumented immigrants – a 5 percent increase from the number of those deported during George W. Bush’s final year in office. Arizona’s SB 1070, signed into state law in April and conferring authority to state police to enforce federal immigration policy, is supported by most Americans, according to multiple opinion polls. It’s amidst this increasingly unwelcoming American political climate that Fairfax County, Virginia, has established itself as a sanctuary community – not for what it has done for its immigrants but for what it hasn’t.

The county, which borders the District of Columbia, is Virginia’s most populated, and home to its largest and fastest-growing immigrant population. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the county’s Hispanic population has grown steadily from approximately 50,000 in 1990 to 100,000 in 2000 and is approaching 150,000 in 2010. There are a host of factors for this trend – the region’s booming overall population has resulted in new opportunities for immigrants, primarily in construction, landscaping and service industry jobs – but the growth is in part attributable to the county’s reputation as a haven for immigrants, at least in comparison to neighboring Prince William County.

It’s a longstanding difference in perception that was underscored this June when Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, called for state legislators to pass a law targeting undocumented immigrants. Stewart calls his proposed legislation the “Virginia Rule of Law Campaign” and cites Arizona’s SB 1070 as a strong influence in its conception. If enacted, the proposed law would empower local police to enforce federal immigration laws, specifically targeting day labor sites, and create unprecedented state penalties for people found to be living in Virginia illegally.

Sharon Bulova, Chairman of Fairfax County’s Board of Supervisors, explains her reluctance to adopt anti-illegal immigration legislation of the kind enacted in neighboring Prince William County.

It’s not the first time Stewart’s pushed for local action on illegal immigration. In 2007, his county enacted a law requiring police officers to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they arrest. While Stewart credits the law with a dramatic decrease in crime in his county, its detractors blame it for eroding trust between Hispanics and police and directing county funds away from more pressing needs.

Sharon Bulova is one of those detractors, and was a particularly vocal critic of the “Rule of Law Campaign.” As chairman of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors, Bulova is adamant that her county is already doing enough to combat illegal immigration and that to endorse legislation like Stewart’s would undermine local law enforcement.

“I have great concerns – and actually, so do our law enforcement individuals – about asking our local police, our Fairfax County police department, to take over the role of Immigration Customs and Enforcement [ICE],” explains Bulova. “It interferes, actually, with our local law enforcement’s role for investigating crime, for taking care of traffic issues, for reporting crime … people may feel hesitant about giving information about a crime that has taken place if they believe that we are taking the place of ICE officials and they turn people in just because [they] believe they may be here illegally.”

Bulova’s concern over the program extends beyond any impact it might have on public safety, however. She values the contributions of immigrants to the local economy, and believes part of her responsibility as an elected official is to preserve diversity.

“Fairfax County is a very, very diverse community,” Bulova asserts. “Over a hundred languages are spoken in the households of students who are in our school system. In Fairfax County we celebrate diversity; we consider it an asset. We have never gone down the same road that Prince William County has because I think they go too far in the direction of making a diverse community feel uncomfortable. We, in this county, have chosen not to create what could be a poisonous atmosphere for our diverse community, a community that we value.”

Bulova’s emphasis on the comfort of her county’s immigrant population is at odds with Stewart’s governing ideology. While he maintains that he also embraces the diversity of the community he serves – even asserting that his county is “by far more diverse” than Fairfax County – his characterization of Prince William County’s immigrant population shows a fundamental difference of opinion.

“I think most of them are here simply because they want to make a living for their families,” Stewart acknowledges. “But that is not the case for all illegal immigrants, and what we’ve found is that there is a gangster element inside the illegal immigrant community that really needs to be rooted out. And that Latinos as a whole find, at least here in Prince William County, that when you have an illegal immigration policy that is specifically directed at illegal immigrants who are committing crimes, it benefits everybody, including the Latino community.”

Stewart, whose wife is a legal immigrant from Sweden, is particularly sensitive to the controversy created by people living in his community illegally.

Corey Stewart, Chairman of Prince William County’s Board of Supervisors, explains how his county could benefit from anti-illegal immigration legislation modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070.

“I know, from my own personal experience, with my wife and from her friends and from other legal immigrants, [that] it can take years if not decades to come to this country legally,” said Stewart. “And to reward people who have come here illegally, and essentially allow them to cut in line…it angers the legal immigrant community that there would be this sort of unfairness.”

One of the proposals in the Rule of Law Campaign would outlaw any sanctuary policies in Virginia, and Stewart is quick to condemn cities like San Francisco and Princeton that have taken steps to protect or provide aid to their undocumented immigrants.

“At the end of the day, you need to enforce the law,” says Stewart. “As a public official, as a government, you have an obligation to enforce federal, state and local laws. And when you take a policy that says, ‘Look, we’re just going to ignore federal law and adopt our own provisions that would essentially legalize people who are here in violation of federal law,’ you have undermined the rule of law. I have a real philosophical problem with any county, state, city, government saying that, ‘We are going to have a policy that specifically condones illegal activity.’”

In spite of her governing philosophy, Bulova declines to characterize Fairfax County as a “sanctuary city.” She notes that hers was the first county in Virginia to implement the Secure Communities program and that her police department will cooperate with federal immigration enforcement when asked for assistance. While she believes it should be easier for undocumented immigrants to obtain some sort of identification in America, she stopped shy of endorsing a program similar to Princeton’s, arguing that Virginia’s state government structure might preclude local agencies from recognizing such cards.

But her acknowledgement of the contributions of Fairfax County’s immigrant community, and her refusal to adopt any measure that would target it beyond what’s already federally stipulated, have given the county the reputation of a sanctuary for immigrants. Given that ICE intends to implement Secure Communities in all of America’s jurisdictions by 2013, a stand against the increased scrutiny of immigrant communities might be all that defines sanctuary cities in the future.