(March 2009) With a lack of clear federal legislation on immigration, some municipal governments are enacting restrictionist policies to address the changing demographics of their communities. Prince William County, an outer suburb of Washington, D.C., that has seen its immigrant population rise dramatically in recent years, has enacted strict laws to restrict immigration. The experience of Prince William County, and its implications for immigration debates at the local level across the United States, is studied in a new report by the Brookings Institution, “Immigrants, Politics, and Local Response in Suburban Washington.”

Immigrants are moving farther away from core urban areas to communities that are seeing their demographics shift quickly, according to Jill Wilson, a research analyst at the Brookings Institution and a co-author of the report: “Increasingly, immigrants have been settling in cities, suburbs, and small towns with little history of immigration. And within metropolitan areas of all kinds, immigrants have been settling farther out from the urban core, following jobs and affordable housing.” In July 2007, after an intense election campaign largely focused on illegal immigration, the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors unanimously approved a resolution that gave local police training to enforce the identification and deportation of unauthorized immigrants and mandated police to check the immigration status of anyone who was arrested. It also mandated county staff to deny benefits to those who could not prove legal residency. In a panel discussion on the report at the Brookings Institution, Randolph Capps from the Migration Policy Institute and Robin Koralek from the Urban Institute outlined similar restrictive measures in northwestern Arkansas and Oklahoma, respectively.

However, restrictive policies are not necessarily the norm around the country. A previous study found that less than 1 percent of municipalities in the United States have considered immigration-related legislation and only 55 percent of the restrictionist laws proposed were passed, while 74 percent of the proimmigrant laws were passed.

The report outlines four observations from Prince William County’s experience that can be applied to other U.S. municipalities dealing with the challenges of demographic changes brought on by immigration: 

  • Facts are important for policymaking: Officials should rely on valid information and grounded knowledge and avoid rumors, negative stereotypes, and inaccuracies.
  • Local officials should communicate new policies clearly: Public outreach and inclusion is critical to allay fears of the impact of new policies.
  • Local problems are best served by policies appropriate to local needs.
  • Elected officials set the tone for how residents think about changing populations.

The economic recession makes local policy response to demographic change from increased immigration more complicated. “On the one hand, rising unemployment and budget deficits raise people’s anxiety about immigrants taking jobs and using local resources,” says Jill Wilson. “On the other hand, local lawmakers are preoccupied with the urgent matters of falling property values and budget shortfalls and thus less likely to address the complicated subject of immigration policy. At the same time, there is statistical evidence that immigration, particularly illegal immigration, is slowing and that foreign-born Hispanics have been more severely impacted by the recession than native-born residents. There is also anecdotal evidence of immigrants returning to their countries of origin. Taken together, these factors suggest that some of the pressure may be off local lawmakers to act.” 


Eric Zuehlke is an editor at the Population Reference Bureau.