In the press release I received for the immigration themed documentary film 9500 Liberty, the opening paragraph reads: “9500 Liberty reveals
the startling vulnerability of a local government targeted by national
anti-immigration networks using the internet to frighten and intimidate
lawmakers and citizens.” For co-director Eric Byler, whose boyhood home
is the very community represented by the local government depicted in
the film, the anti-immigrant forces that converged on Prince William
County, Virginia have a personal resonance. With the help of fellow
director Annabelle Park, a film has been produced that portrays the
impact of immigration restrictionists’ efforts on a small corner of the
US with great (and heart breaking) detail.
In mid 2007, Prince William County in
Virginia adopted a law “requiring police officers to question anyone
they thought was ‘probably’ undocumented.” At the behest of a coalition
of local anti-immigration activists, politicians and an internet based
network of similarly minded citizens across the country spearheaded by FAIR
(Federation for American Immigration Reform), the law had become
reality – and the reality of its profoundly negative impact became
impossible to ignore. With the novel threat posed by newly empowered
police officers to act on a mere suspicion of undocumented status in
mind, the local immigrant community responded by packing up and leaving
(The name 9500 Liberty is inspired by
the street address at which a large billboard had been placed by
opponents of these restrictionists to express their views, written by
hand, largely by anonymous locals vulnerable to the actions of such
austere anti-immigration measures.)
The ramifications of this collective
act of emigration for the local economy were devastating. Home prices
plummeted as neighbors fled, leaving overgrown lawns and dilapidated
housing units in their wake. Businesses closed, and those that remained
open suffered huge drops in patronage. This was all bad enough, but in
tandem with the national financial crisis of 2008 Prince William
County’s economic dire straits were especially severe.
This local experiment in organized
Nativist purging of “the other” had reaped what it sowed – and even the
Natives themselves didn’t much like it.
In time this law would be reversed,
as the film documents, due in part to the change of heart of local
residents in the face of a severe economic downturn, but primarily to
the efforts of opponents – mostly immigrants, along with their native
born sympathizers – of the “probable cause mandate” who demanded
assurance that it would not be abused.
First among these opponents were
in fact the police themselves, under the leadership of Col. Charlie T.
Deane. With the threat of racial profiling looming large, the idea of
seeing cameras installed in all police vehicles, as a way to assuage
fears of improper conduct, began to gain real traction. But since this
would require a hefty tax increase to finance, it would be subject to a
vote by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors. This, in the
end, proved to be the law’s undoing, as local citizens found it hard to
stomach a tax increase in the face of an ongoing economic malaise.
I sat down with Annabelle Park and
Eric Byler in a beautiful house high atop the Oakland Hills to discuss
the film. The following is a partial transcript:
So, the re-release of 9500
Liberty seems timely given what’s going on with SB 1070 in Arizona.
This probably isn’t a coincidence.
ERIC BYLER: Oh it’s totally not a
coincidence. The Arizona law is written by the same people that wrote
our law. Annabelle and I in some ways broke the story, that it wasn’t
actually citizen activism, but an outside immigrant lobbying firm
invited to town by local organizers. The problem is that FAIR are
lobbyists from outside my county, so they don’t share our fate. And I
think that FAIR actually bragging about this impact they had helped the
decision by the county to repeal the law. That and the widespread
perception that the law wasn’t being used fairly on the part of the
I was just looking today at a Pew Research Center survey
that showed broad nationwide public support for SB 1070. Among young
people support is less than 50%, but among everyone else it’s a
majority. Even Democrats.
ANNABELLE PARK: There are legal
issues, moral issues and then just practical issues. I don’t think
people are looking at the costs. In Prince William County the police
had to be trained in the extra paper work, there were detainment costs
and all the rest. The local government tax base was affected. There’s a
misunderstanding that these immigrants can be isolated and removed from
society. People don’t understand how integrated they actually are. They
are laborers, tax payers, neighbors. When they leave it affects
Our story shows that we can argue all
we want about legal and moral issues. But if you actually look at the
practical impact – police and I.C.E. doesn’t have the capacity to take
in all these detainees, even if they could find them all. It’s very
It’s interesting how this creates
a rift in the conservative crowd. These people don’t want to pay more
taxes, but they also don’t want illegals in their state or community.
EB: Its funny how people speaking of
taxes as “treason” – as if they are an affront to American values –
these Tea Partiers in Prince William County becoming apoplectic about
taxes were the first in line to say “Please raise my taxes!”.
AP: In theory, people may be willing
to pay more. But how much more? Are you willing to pay 1,000, 2,000,
3,000 dollars per family?
EB: Our tax rate went up 25 percent
that year. At the end of the film you see [Republican Chairman of the
Prince William County Board of Supervisors] Corey Stewart saying “let’s
raise taxes another 5% – what’s 5%?”, and the other board members,
Republican and Democrat, saying “I think we’ve raised taxes enough on
AP: I.C.E. has said they don’t have
the capacity to enforce this, to properly process all these potential
detainees. But you know what people in Arizona are saying? “Let’s put
them all in tents.” They want to put thousands of people in tents in
120 degree weather.
Since they know deep down that I.C.E.
can’t actually enforce this, what they want to do is create a climate
of fear so bad that people will leave voluntarily. [There is evidence
this has already begun.]
But do you want to live in a society where one segment of society feels
targeted and is so afraid that they leave everything behind and go?
This affects your quality of life too.
What’s happening in Arizona seems
in some ways unusual. Generally speaking states with more immigrants
are usually more favorable toward them. It’s the states with very few
actual immigrants that hold the most negative views.
EB: Well support for the law in Arizona comes from the retirement community, people that haven’t lived in Arizona very long.
And they don’t have as much contact with immigrants.
EB: Yea. The rhetoric and the strategy around
SB 1070 is to say that “If you are against illegal immigration, you
must be for this policy.”
AP: They’re conflated. Being against it and being for this particular policy.
Yea, during election years the
pressure to signal that you are against illegal immigration or whatever
in some concrete way gets ramped up.
EB: Well, John McCain was right about
one thing. There is a cost to going with culture war as a political
issue. It’s not worth that cost [though he has since commented favorably on SB 1070]. Long term it’s a bad strategy.
Moderate Republicans probably aren’t
in the party anymore. Or they are so emasculated that they are allowing
these people who used to just be in the basement to run the show.
What we’re seeing in those polls –
well, people just don’t have time to look at the facts of this policy.
People don’t have the time to investigate. That’s why the film is
important. It’s not hard homework to watch this movie. They don’t have
to read a Brookings Institution report. It’s a little harder than
watching a 2 minute news spot, but it’s easy enough that they can
After our election, as a county, we
began to look at the policy because there was no more politics to be
had. It was four more years until the next election. We’ve had the
vote, we’ve had the election, we’ve had emergency funding to start
implementing this policy – what did the policy actually do? Whoa, it
was the opposite of what we thought? On crime, the economy? You saw the
soccer mom, the small business owner…you saw people change. It’s not
a flip flop, it’s becoming more educated, more informed.
I’ve heard some people defend –
no names come to mind right now – the Arizona law by saying “Let’s see
what happens. Let’s experiment.” But if you want to see evidence for
this, see Prince William County.
AP: I think the effects will be pretty dramatic, in agriculture especially. But also the housing market.
EB: Also tourism. But it’s the summer, nobody goes there in summer. In winter people will see the effects.
Even the Republican Party decided not
to have its convention there. That tells you the law is so far to the
right that the Republican Party, which is supposed to be synonymous
with the right, doesn’t want to be associated with your state.
AP: Here’s the thing. What may happen
in Arizona is that they implement this law and the federal government
finds it unconstitutional, it intercedes in some way. So it turns into
this state vs. federal government thing that we saw in the 60s, which
is not the kind of fight we want to see. So that’s something to worry
At interview time, 9500 Liberty was playing at the Lumiere. Though its run there has ended, the filmmakers say you can host a screening or house party for 9500 Liberty in your area, by emailing them at firstname.lastname@example.org.