Strict Immigration Law Affecting Well-Being of Latino Residents, Survey Finds

Posted: June 1, 2010 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: June 1, 2010 at 7:58 am

By Tara Laskowski

immigration rallySince Prince William County, Va., adopted one of the nation’s most stringent immigration ordinances in 2007, Latino immigrants in the county describe prolonged unemployment, as well as a lack of stable access to food and housing. The Prince William statute is similar to the one adopted by the state of Arizona in April.

In a recent study, Mason researchers found that the Prince William County ordinance has left immigrants living in fear – with parents restricting their participation in recreational activities and worrying that they will be arrested and separated from their children.

The Prince William County statute, known as the county’s “Rule of Law” ordinance, requires that police check immigration status of all who could possibly be in the country without authorization.

Mason researchers Debra Lattanzi Shutika and Carol Cleaveland conducted in-depth interviews in 60 Spanish-speaking households with immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.

The researchers say the sentiments expressed by immigrants in Prince William County could help explain much of the fear and anger on the part of Latinos in Arizona.

Some immigrants in Prince William County described loss of stable housing due to the law. Immigrants stated they had been working in the construction and service industries prior to the ordinance, after which, most stated, they lost their jobs or suffered a reduction in hours worked.

The ordinance forced Latino immigrants to leave the county abruptly, and many said this led to a number of foreclosures even before the October 2008 recession.

In the words of one immigrant from El Salvador, “Many have lost their houses because they were renting; the people that were subletting left. Many have lost their houses because they were losing work.”

“What we have found in Prince William County is the need to work with immigrants to alleviate suffering and support their participation in the community,” says Cleaveland, a Mason assistant professor of social work.

“For three years, there has been tremendous polarization over the issue of immigration, and this could be attenuated by dialogue and an understanding between people on both sides of a very complex issue.”

According to Brookings Institution demographic analyses, Prince William County experienced a Latino population growth of almost 150 percent between 2000 and 2006.

“Indications are that many Latinos, documented and otherwise, came here to work [in] construction. But the infrastructure of organizations that could help with community relations simply wasn’t there,” Cleaveland says.

The immigrant interviews are the second of a two-part examination, initiated in 2008 by Lattanzi Shutika, an associate professor of English and director of the Mason Project on Immigration.

The first phase of the study probed beliefs about neighborhood change and immigration in two Prince William County neighborhoods. As noted by Lattanzi Shutika, a majority of residents expressed deep-seated anti-immigrant sentiments, though fewer than half said immigration affected them personally.

“Our research suggests that the changes that have taken place in Prince William County in the past 20 years have been unsettling for some residents,” says Lattanzi Shutika.

“Many of these residents seemed to be experiencing what I have identified as ‘localized displacement’ – they feel as if their home community has changed to the point that they now feel out of place. This, I believe, is in part the source of frustration and resentment that we have observed in Northern Virginia and more recently in Arizona.”

Interviews were conducted over a one-year period and were obtained by going door-to-door in a neighborhood that was identified by census tract analysis as having a high population of Latinos.

Interviews were conducted in Spanish and included open-ended questions to gauge immigrant sentiment. Interviewing began in September 2008 and concluded in June 2009.

Though the study is an important indicator of immigrant sentiment in the wake of one of the nation’s early law-enforcement immigration ‘crackdown’ initiatives, Cleaveland and Lattanzi Shutika emphasize that the research methodology was designed to give an in-depth view of a small sample. Therefore, results may not be representative of other populations of Latino immigrants.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu