Monday, February 22, 2010

Lessons Can Be Learned From Documentary on Prince William County's Illegal Immigration Debate

Last week I attended a Brigades meeting in Vienna where there was a showing of the documentary 9500 Liberty. For those of you who don’t know, the documentary was produced by Annabel Park and Eric Byler and chronicled the debate in 2007 and 2008 surrounding illegal immigration in Prince William County. It was a great film and I highly recommend people watch it if they get the opportunity to do so.

The film focuses in on a few central characters that played key roles in local elected officials adopting a law that said police officers had to question anyone who they have “probable cause” to believe is an undocumented immigrant. As the film shows, “probable cause” is a very broad term here and after this policy was adopted people of Hispanic descent in Prince William would often be pulled over for things such as their license plate being a little bent.

The policy backfired as the community was rather disappointed in the clear racial profiling used to enforce the policy. Furthermore, there were clear economic repercussions behind the policy as it cost millions of dollars to enforce and people began moving away because they no longer wanted to live in a community that was going to be so unwelcoming to a large portion of its population. The policy was therefore eventually reversed, but only after a long fight.

While the movie focuses on the storyline surrounding the policy, I think there is a very important lesson in there for people to pay attention to. Throughout the movie, Greg Letiecq plays a central role as the person who is the prime supporter of the discriminatory policy. It becomes painfully obvious that Greg is a person who is willing to make up facts, go after anyone who disagrees with him, use scare tactics to hind the fact that he doesn’t have any evidence to support his claims, and isn’t ashamed of the fact that he’s a racist. In fact, at one point in the movie he even speaks proudly about how so many people think he’s a racist.

Greg comes across as such an extremist that it’s hard to think that he was able to get a relatively large following. The plain and simple truth is, however, that he did. Despite the fact that the actual numbers show that crime was done and that the vast majority of immigrants simply wanted to give their families a good life, Greg was able to convince people that immigrants were at the root of all evil and were responsible for an increase in crime. The fact that Corey Stewart (the Republican chairman of the Board of Supervisors) saw a political opportunity in Greg’s bigotry only helped to increase the extremist’s baseless claims. In other words, the extremism and bigotry of a small extremist minority was able to get grow to a point where it ruined the lives of so many people in the community.

After people continued fighting for the truth and against bigotry, however, the extremists were eventually defeated on this measure. It’s extremely important to note, however, that it was only after a long and hard fought struggle that they were able to expose Greg Letiecq, Corey Stewart, and others for the bigots and political opportunists that they are.

As there are now many similarities between the anti-Immigrant movement and the Tea Party activists (Greg Letiecq’s group has actually joined up with the tea party folks), it’s important to look back on the situation in Prince William County that’s discussed in 9500 Liberty. The truth only won out when people continued focusing on the actual realities on the ground and exposed Greg and his allies as what they were – extremists who were willing to do anything it took for a victory. Once this was exposed, moderates fled the ranks of the extremist organizations and worked to rectify some of the damage that was done. I strongly believe that through working to expose the Tea Party leaders as the extremists that they are and educating the public about the realities of the current situation will have a similar impact.

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