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More communities use local police to enforce US immigration law

Prince William County in Virginia is one of a growing number of counties and cities making their own immigration reforms.

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To those who would crack down on illegal immigrants, it seems an obvious strategy: Have tens of thousands of local law-enforcement officers carry out federal immigration law by checking the status of people they stop or arrest.

It turns out to be more complicated than that, but the number of communities endorsing the idea – including, most recently, Virginia's Prince William County – has been gradually rising and is expected to jump even higher in the months ahead.

"This is something we're going to see a lot of now," says law professor Dave Martin of the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. He says public frustration over high levels of illegal immigration and Congress's failure to agree on reforms is spurring the reaction.

In the past, cities that welcomed diversity and new immigrants made a point of refusing to let their police officers help federal agents identify people who might be in the US illegally. Others worried that their departments would be slapped with harassment or racial-profiling lawsuits if they became involved in enforcing US immigration laws.

But when political leaders in Prince William County saw national reform legislation falter last month in the Senate, they approved their own immigration-reform resolution that, among other things, would give local police a shot at enforcement.

To that end, the Board of Supervisors voted unanimously on July 10 to allow county police officers the authority to check the citizenship status of anyone they've stopped or arrested whom they have "probable cause" to believe is in the US illegally. The county board has yet to define "probable cause," but board chairman Corey Stewart says it may be based on whether a person has a driver's license.

The county "has reached a boiling point," says Mr. Stewart. An influx of illegal immigrants over the past four years has led to overcrowded houses and schools, overstretched public services, and a rising problem with gangs, he says.

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