Nationalism, Nativism, and 287(g): Lessons from Prince William County, Virginia

2017 — TEN YEARS AGO, Prince William County, Virginia's Board of County Supervisors decided to localize the enforcement of federal immigration law. Local Latinxs, migrant activists, and liberal groups resisted, but over the course of the next several years, politically conservative and racially hateful rhetoric and policies damaged Prince William County’s finances, community, and reputation.

Back in 2007, I was a rising junior in college. Born in Baltimore and raised in Montgomery County, Maryland, I was keeping a weather eye on what was happening in Prince William, partly because I was the multiracial daughter of a Latin American immigrant, partly because I was a D.C. native and therefore attuned to area politics, and partly because everything happening in Prince William was so different from what was happening in my home county.

Eventually, I turned my passing interest into my senior thesis. I wanted to understand why these two counties on opposite sides of the district had such different approaches to unauthorized immigration. During my research process, the Prince William's Board of County Supervisors ended up having to walk back their policies -- and some of their rhetoric -- because, as other, more practiced researchers' work could have informed them, acting on racism and nativism often costs businesses and governments real money that governments need to pay for real things that people need. Diversity is not just a good thing because you have more options for takeout. In this day and age, diversity is a societal, economic, and national security imperative.

The federal government has recently attempted to set up the same kinds of localized immigration enforcement programs Prince William adopted back then (e.g., 287g programs), in addition to other restrictive immigration policies. The architect of this grand scheme — former Kansas Attorney General and notorious racist Kris Kobach — was also the architect of Prince William's failure. Prince William County’s 2007 mistakes were not that long ago or that far across the Potomac River, for that matter. So I thought it was time to revisit my research — to re-read it, re-analyze interview transcripts, delve back into my Census data — and see what kinds of lessons we could re-learn.

Today, in 2017, I still do not have it figured it all out, but with the benefit of hindsight and seven years' worth of graduate school, I can safely say that we should all be more worried than we already are.

Demography and County Identity: Now You See Me

Back in 2006, Brookings demographer William Frey wrote about the whole Washington, D.C. metropolitan area as a new kind of immigrant receiving destination. The “DMV” (i.e., DC - Maryland - Virginia area) is not a traditional immigrant "gateway city" like New York, or gateway state like California or Texas, but immigrants from places as disparate as El Salvador, Ethiopia, and Vietnam settle there in high numbers. The construction and service industries boomed there in the 90s, the local economy was doing pretty well, and the DMV was already more diverse than other cities and metro areas, so it was appealing on a number of levels to newer waves of immigrants.

Between 2000 and 2006 alone, Prince William County's overall population had grown by more than a third, and both the foreign-born and Latinx populations had doubled. Almost all of Prince William's population growth -- a stunning 94% -- was nonwhite. This was a bit of a culture shock for a county that had been ~20% nonwhite in 1990, and, less than twenty years later, had become ~50% nonwhite. Suddenly, Prince William was the most racially diverse county in northern Virginia. This was a new county identity for which longtime white residents may not have been fully socially prepared.

These demographic shifts helped move Prince William specifically, and both northern Virginia and the entire state of Virginia more generally, from a solid red state to a more "purple" one. Prince William had always tended towards conservatism -- it tipped the scales at 53% or 54% for the Republican candidates for president in 1996, 2000, and 2004 -- but by 2008, 58% of the county voted for Barack Obama. This is a little confusing in light of nativist attitudes towards immigrants -- if a former Republican county voted for a biracial man with a foreign-sounding name for president, why were they so hard on Latinx immigrants? The picture is not actually that murky. In 2007, a local poll revealed that county residents were torn about immigrants' contributions to their communities: less than half thought immigrant contributions were positive. Two thirds, however, thought unauthorized immigration was a serious problem in their state and that new immigrants lowered the quality of life in their county. The illegality of unauthorized immigration seemed to be at the crux of the issue, and, “illegal immigration” is a very racialized issue in the United States more broadly, one targeted specifically towards “ethnic” Latinxs.

Montgomery County was a different story altogether. It has been one of the wealthiest counties in the D.C. metropolitan area, with one of the best public school systems and lowest crime rates. It is Maryland's most racially diverse county. The Latinx proportion of the population increased by a factor of 1.5 between 1990 and 2000, slightly greater than the margin of growth for Asian Americans (1.4) and African Americans (1.2). The white proportion of the population declined during that decade by a factor of 1.2. By 2000, 45% of Maryland's foreign-born population lived in Montgomery, and almost 40% of Montgomery's population was racial minority and/or foreign-born.

Montgomery County, perhaps because of its history of racial diversity, has always tended to be more liberal. As of March 2009, there were over twice as many registered Democrats (317,217) as Republicans (124,026). We get the occasional Republican governor, and sometimes the Congresspeople from the western and southern parts of the state lean more red than blue, but Democrats win an overwhelming majority of the city, county, state, and federal elections. In 2008, 72% of the county voted for Obama. Half of Montgomery County residents said that immigrants had made their communities better.

Montgomery County, always the larger population, experienced greater population growth between 1990 and 2000, while Prince William County experienced more growth between 2000 and 2006. That same overall trend is true with respect to foreign-born population growth as well. This turns out to be pretty important.

The Accomplishment of Place

As I mentioned before, my goal back in 2008 and 2009 was to understand why these two counties would take such diametrically opposed stances on their unauthorized immigrant populations. And it seemed as though demography influenced regional politics in key ways. If I wanted to understand differences in policy outcomes, I needed to frame questions in terms of demographic, and therefore sociopolitical, history and change.

  1. What did this county used to look like, in terms of demographics and political representation? How did this county conceive of itself in the civic imaginary? In other words, who does a Prince William County resident think a typical Prince William County resident is, and how does that affect how they think about the county and the other people who live there?

  2. What demographic changes have taken place over time? Has that change been gradual or radical? Radical change can effect backlash, which can, in turn, beget its own backlash. These conflicts -- not just political, but social, cultural, economic, etc. -- are about the fundamental identity of the county.

  3. What happens next -- who wins? Does a certain group (the old guard or the newcomers) flee? Or does a certain group (the old guard or the newcomers) resist? How do remaining county residents negotiate county identity?

I was not familiar with it at the time, but literature on the accomplishment of place is where all of this comes together (try this article for a good introduction to it).

Take Montgomery County, Maryland, for example. They are the richest, most diverse county in the nation, and, for the most part, they wear that moniker with pride. But Montgomery's diversity has been fairly constant and gradual in its development and growth. So Montgomery County responded to an influx of more nonwhite immigrants as a matter of course, a natural progression of its identity as a diverse county.

Prince William, on the other hand, had a much smaller population to start with, and it exploded over the last twenty years, largely to due an influx of nonwhite people. A county whose identity had been more rural, further away from the city center, and certainly more white, reacted with more shock at more Mexican restaurants, at Spanish being spoken in neighborhood settings, and even at the occasional backyard chicken (now a favorite pet among the Silicon Valley elite). It is entirely plausible that conservative county leadership intentionally aggravated voters’ shock in order to accomplish otherwise expensive and unpopular racist goals. Even local publications covering the issue amplified discomfort, making it seem as though most white Prince William residents did not like that which they did not understand. More extensive (and carefully balanced) surveys may not have borne out widespread anti-Latinx sentiment, although the Washington Post also reported rashes of robberies of and violence against Latinx men during this time.

Image source

Enforcing Federal Law at the County Level

These two counties were not responding to increased immigration in a vacuum. They both operated in the spatial and political contexts of their states, and their leadership and residents were aware of what was going on in the rest of the country -- in other counties, in other states, and at the federal level. In fact, some of the policy and programmatic choices that Montgomery County made were in direct response -- and in opposition -- to what they saw Prince William doing.

Different counties and cities in D.C., Maryland, and Virginia took different approaches to immigrants, both authorized and unauthorized. The District and Maryland were, in general, more welcoming. In the District and in Prince George's and Montgomery counties in Maryland, police officers were forbidden from asking about individual's immigration status. Frederick and Anne Arundel counties in Maryland were exceptions to the rule: officers were allowed to ask about immigration status and could report unauthorized immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The operative word there was could: reporting was not mandatory, and reporting at scale was not feasible because the the infrastructure to support it (i.e., expanded access to ICE databases, ICE trainings, more frequently scheduled ICE detainee pickups, etc.) simply did not exist.


"It’s our belief that some Latino or Hispanic persons are victims of crime and they choose not to report it for fear that their legal status will be questioned. And I’ve been personally involved along with our Hispanic media liaison [...] in reaching out to the Latino community to generate and foster a higher level of trust between the police department and the community. [...] Our number one concern is to provide service to you as a victim and that service involves investigation. If you’re a victim of a crime, you’re entitled to the services that we can provide to solve that crime. [...] So I’ve been on Spanish radio a number of times, television, and again through our media section, we continue to put that word out."

Montgomery County Assistant Chief of Police Wayne Jerman


Montgomery County has accepted documents issued by foreign governments as proof of identity since 2003. The county has also run an official welcome center since 2001 -- The Charles Gilchrist Immigrant Resource Center -- that uses taxpayer money to fund English, citizenship, and computer literacy classes, among other programming. The county also funds three day labor centers, run by local non-profit CASA de Maryland, where unauthorized workers can safely gather and seek work. Former County Executive Doug Duncan even made a trip to El Salvador, a nation from which many of the county's residents have emigrated, to meet with its president and with national business leaders.

As early as 2004, former Police Chief J. Thomas Manger was pushing to lift the citizenship requirement for becoming a police officer. He thought that if people with green cards were permitted to join the military and defend their new nation, they should also be allowed to join the police force and protect their communities. The county police department also had a Hispanic Liaison office that actively recruited bilingual officers and engaged with the local Hispanic community -- through radio spots, church visits, and assemblies at schools -- in order to cultivate a more trusting relationship between the community and the police.


"When you look at an immigrant, it’s not a terrorist. When you look at an immigrant, it’s someone trying to make a better life."

Former Montgomery County Executive Doug Duncan


In Virginia, Arlington deputies could ask detainees about their status, but could only report them to ICE if they were suspected to have committed a felony or a violent crime. Loudon County ICE-trained deputies could inquire about immigration status and report unauthorized immigrants to ICE regardless of the severity of the crime. Fairfax County officers could also inquire about immigration status, but were not required to do so.

Ultimately, conservative local leadership in Prince William, influenced by nativist national activists, capitalized on residents' discomfort. Starting in the summer of 2007, Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart and Vice Chairman John Stirrup issued several mandates.

Prince William Board of County Supervisors Corey Stewart, former Chairman of Trump's Virginia campaign, and current candidate for Governor of Virginia (Image source)

Here's a timeline:

July 2007

The Board of County Supervisors ordered an investigation into what county services could legally and feasibly be denied to unauthorized immigrants.

September 2007

The Board of County Supervisors put forward their own version of 287(g).

The 287(g) program mandates that a police officer checks the immigration status of any individual they believe to be in the country illegally. These checks -- performed in the federal ICE database -- were required after an officer made any traffic stop, interacted with any individual on the street or on a call, detained or arrested anyone suspected (not convicted) of anything, regardless of its severity.

Prince William's 287(g) also permitted officers to stop anyone who looked like they might be in the country illegally, even if they did not suspect that that individual had committed a crime of any kind. This essentially legalized the racial profiling of Latinxs.

The estimated five-year price tag was $14.2 million. This was huge for a county with a population of less than 500,000, even before you consider that the recession had already started to hit Prince William. Property taxes had already fallen ten percent, which had already reduced the police department's budget by over $0.5 million.

Early October 2007

The commission investigating what county services could be denied to unauthorized immigrants presented their results to the Board of Supervisors and the public.

Education is a federally protected right that cannot be denied to any child, regardless of immigration status. Some county services could be denied, but it would be difficult and potentially costly to do so (e.g., access to parks, libraries, public pools, and historic sites). Still other services could be denied, but it would actually be better for the whole county community if everyone had access to them (e.g., psychiatric services, landfill/municipal waste pickup, animal control).

Certain services were already denied to unauthorized immigrants and would continue to be denied to them (e.g., welfare, Medicaid, food stamps). The committee identified several additional services to deny to unauthorized immigrants through residency checks during the application process (e.g., small business licenses, senior discounts, homeless shelters, substance abuse counseling, adult day care, in-home care for the elderly or disabled).

Late October 2007

The Board of County Supervisors unanimously passed their 287(g) resolution.

The police chief, Charlie T. Deane, was initially skeptical -- he knew policing was a community effort that you cannot do effectively or humanely without the cooperation and respectful treatment of everyone in the community, and he did not want to compromise on that belief -- but he eventually acquiesced and supported the resolution. Other police officers had expressed their personal reservations: they were already stretched to the limit of their familiarity with Latinx culture and the Spanish language, and with the very vague stipulations about who to stop and why, they thought far too much was left to their discretion.

The Prince William County Human Rights Commission, established in 1992, protested the proposal as racist, wildly inappropriate for approaching the greater issue of assimilation, and prohibitively expensive. Some citizens were outraged that an unauthorized immigrant could be arrested and deported for something as innocuous as speeding, or even walking down the street doing absolutely nothing.

Instituting and running background checks for the additional county services identified by the Board's commission was also going to cost money (in additional to the anticipated $14.2 million). The Board decided to revisit the budget issue later.

In response, the city council of Takoma Park (a city in Montgomery County, Maryland) unanimously passed a resolution that declared itself a Sanctuary City, where the enforcement of federal immigration law was explicitly prohibited.

The "Liberty Wall," named after its location at 9500 Liberty Street, was put up by a Latino contractor in the late summer of 2007 as the Board of County Supervisors debated ways to deny services to unauthorized immigrants. The contractor and his friends tore it down in September 2008 the day before a scheduled hearing to punish him for not obtaining a proper permit for the sign. During the year the sign was up, it was a flash point of the immigration debate. (Image source)

287(g): The Aftermath

Detainments and arrests of unauthorized immigrants in Prince William County skyrocketed in 2008. Jails became dangerously overcrowded, and corrections officers were regularly working 60 hours per week. Instead of the mandated 72 hours, ICE was taking weeks to pick up detainees for federal deportation proceedings. Because of the overcrowding and delays, the county was spending much more than they anticipated on incarceration -- in 2008, they spent $3 million on jailing unauthorized immigrants in neighboring counties in 2008 alone.

In just the first year, it cost Prince William $6.4 million to start implementing 287(g). Revised estimates set the five-year cost at $26 million, not $14.2 million. To hire more police officers to handle the increased workload would cost an additional $48.1 million over the next five years. And these estimates did not incorporate the funds necessary to pay overtime for police or corrections officers or other law enforcement staff, to address jail overcrowding, or to fund foster care for the children of incarcerated and deported parents. In belated response to concerns about racial profiling, Police Chief Deane asked the county for dash-mounted cameras for the force's 270 squad cars; the installation would cost $1.8 million, and monitoring footage an additional $1.2 million.

(I do not mention the crushing costs of legal representation or health care for any of the individuals or families arrested, incarcerated, charged, and/or mistreated during this time because those are services the county could have reasonably denied non-citizens, especially non-citizen inmates.)

The ripple effect was enormous. Where Prince William previously had one of the lowest county unemployment rates in the country, and approximately 20% of the county identified as Latinox


Kristen Mack (Washington Post reporter on the Prince William immigration beat): We see that people are leaving, and homes are being foreclosed on. And it's hard to know, in this economic situation, if it's a causal effect. But we've definitely seen a decrease in the Hispanic population in Prince William County.

Me: Is the same true for legal immigrants and American citizens who are of Mexican heritage or other Latin American heritage? Do you think they’re equally scared?

Kristen: Concerned, definitely. [...] There’s definitely been, less of a fear but more of an annoyance and frustration, that the county where they live would do this, or treat all people who look a certain way or have a certain surname, [...] the same. You’ve definitely heard some of those concerns expressed by people. And [...] people are leaving.


Empowered by this anti-immigrant rhetoric, the Manassas chapter of the Ku Klux Klan began operating out in the open, handing out leaflets in the county seat's downtown area promoting a "white Christian America." Manassas Park cancelled a recurring Latinx culture festival in 2007 because it used city funds. A rash of hate crimes against Latinxs began happening in the D.C. area; called "amigo shopping," white male teens robbed and beat working class Latinxs whom they believed would be carrying cash from their day's work, would be more likely to be traveling home on foot, and would be reluctant to report their victimization to the police.

In April of 2008, overwhelmed by the expense of their endeavor and afraid for the local economy, the Board of County Supervisors rescinded the part of 287(g) that mandated immigration status checks in the field. Status checks would only be run when someone was actually booked into a jail. They also tried to save several million dollars by refusing Chief Deane's request for dashcams, and by slashing funds for foster care for children of incarcerated and deported parents.

In 2009, Chairman Stewart focused his rhetoric on the need to tighten the county's belt with regard to spending. This was rather glum after 2007's celebration of the county's booming economy and 2008's enthusiastic rout of unauthorized immigration.

Immediately upon her appointment in 2009, Obama's Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano, ordered a review of the 287(g) program's efficacy. President Obama did not shut down the program, though he and his lieutenants did not actively promote it. Unfortunately, Obama’s successor had planned on reviving 287(g) within his first 100 days.

Trump and Kris Kobach in front of the White House in January 2017 (Image source)

And Now This...Again

Despite Prince William County's multi-level economic implosion because of 287(g), and despite similar financial and social implosions elsewhere in the nation over the last decade or so, the program still exists. Localities still apply to be a part of it, to receive access to ICE's databases, for ICE to train their police officers or sheriff's deputies, for ICE to pick up their detainees, and more. And for some reason, it is still a go-to solution at the federal level when conservatives -- fiscal conservatives -- want to crack down on unauthorized immigration. I imagine this is because it takes a lot of the real legwork, and a good deal of the cost, off the federal government's plate. You would think the cost would still be prohibitive, that they might learn that unauthorized immigrants pay tens of millions of dollars in taxes every year, and that they and the authorized immigrants and Latinxs who are collateral damage in these crackdowns are all important members of their communities in ways that are not just financial.

But no. With Kris Kobach, one of the program's most vocal champions, working on immigration policy for the White House with Trump's Department of Homeland Security Secretary, John Kelly, the nation is heading towards deploying 287(g) programs at scale in localities across the country.


"The program fell out of favor in the latter years of President Obama’s administration, and there are now 37 jurisdictions participating at a cost of $24 million, according to the American Immigration Council. The program — known as 287(g), which is the federal code that established it in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1996 — grew to encompass more than 70 local jurisdictions at its peak. But immigrant-rights groups charged that the program has resulted in civil rights abuses and racial profiling by poorly trained local police and lax supervision by ICE. Trump’s executive orders instruct ICE to expand the program and allow [Customs and Border Patrol], which did not previously participate, to launch its own version — in hopes of creating a 'force multiplier.' The [Department of Homeland Security] assessment states that the ICE review board is considering applications from 18 new jurisdictions and has identified 50 more that are interested in participating. Yet the documents again raise a cautionary flag about funding, stating that ICE probably will be unable to add more than 20 new 287(g) partnerships this year because of limited resources."

Washington Post article, 13 April 2017


So what now?

It is clear that Trump will continue to fight for a border wall -- a federal endeavor, if it becomes an endeavor at all -- and his Muslim ban, also a federal effort. But his hope to expand 287(g) shows federalist tendencies -- it just gives power to counties instead of states. Participating localities (of which there are now 75) have to opt in to the program. The feds recognize, at least under current budget constraints, that they cannot fund more than 20 new programs on their end. But as we saw with Prince William, most of the money does not come from Washington, it is supposed to come from the counties themselves. And it can turn out to cost more than those localities originally anticipated.

This slightly uncharacteristic federalist tendency is actually a great way for a leader like Trump to say confidently to his base that he is getting tough on illegal immigration without taking on any of the real work or risk himself. Localizing immigration enforcement -- a federal responsibility, I reiterate -- makes it easy for him and his supporters to blame other people (county leadership, to be more specific) if the efforts fail. Plus, one of the goals of Prince William's 287(g) program was for unauthorized immigrants to self-deport, from the country or the county, they did not care which. And if authorized immigrants and native-born Latinxs left in the process, hey, that was icing on the cake.

If immigrants and native-born Latinxs leave areas with 287(g) programs in droves like they did in Prince William, this could have a couple different kinds of cumulative effects. The Latinx population could become more geographically concentrated in areas perceived as safer for and kinder to Latinxs, which could further concentrate the group's electoral power. The perennial "sleeping giant" could finally wake up and exert even more force in elections to come. But these migratory choices might also make the country even more politically -- and racially, economically, and socially -- fragmented than it already is.

I am extrapolating and speculating here, to be sure. Counties and states making their own laws is not a new thing, and neither is the notion that different states have different sociopolitical identities. But in order to get bigger things done, state and local governments sometimes have to take advantage of liberal or conservative momentum on the national stage. These early moments are critical, because we have to think big picture and long term in order to enact an effective resistance.

A Postscript from the Future

Perhaps frustrated by his inability to fund or build a border wall, Trump’s aides focused their programmatic attention to achieving goals readily within their reach. Two years into Trump’s presidency, his administration has debuted a new program, a derivative of and similar in its goals to 287(g), but flexible and limited enough to operate under the auspices of “sanctuary” states and cities. This announcement comes on the heels of Trump’s proposal to “release” detained immigrants into sanctuary cities.

ICE, a division of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), now administers a nationwide program that localities must also opt into called the Warrant Service Officer (WSO) program. Existing 287(g) programs represent intensive working partnerships between local police or sheriff’s departments and ICE in which officers are trained for four weeks to interrogate suspects about their immigration status, to access federal databases, and to arrest unauthorized or lawbreaking immigrants. WSOs are empowered to detain immigrants on ICE’s behalf, but not upon their own legal recognizance, as DHS anticipates WSO program applicants represent law enforcement that wishes they could enforce federal immigration law but finds local or state policies in their way. WSO programs only require a day’s worth of on-site training with ICE before officers can make immigration arrests on behalf of ICE, hold immigrant detainees for double the legal limit of 48 hours, and even facilitate the deportation process.

The WSO program’s first participating location is Pinellas County, along Florida’s Gulf Coast.