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The air smells like chlorine and cleaning product. Outside, it's raining hard, and everyone's hair and clothes are wet. Four folding tables dressed up with a red tablecloth offer Buffalo wings, chicken skewers and egg rolls. Most of the food's untouched.
In Richmond's Southwood community, about 70 Hispanics have gathered in this stuffy pool house to meet with city police about stemming crime in the neighborhood. Most of the residents who've come are interested in acquiring driver's licenses, asking questions about police procedure and learning more about local laws.
Most of the Hispanics in the room are also illegal immigrants.
Police Chief Rodney Monroe is here, along with the Mexican consul and officials from the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles, the Catholic Diocese of Richmond's refugee and immigration service and the city's Hispanic Liaison Office.
"I think we need to meet more," Monroe says, "and have our officers come to these meetings more, because the best time to establish a relationship is when things are calm, before something is wrong."
While politicians across Virginia and the country pursue all sorts of anti-illegal-immigration measures, such as cutting public services and empowering local police to detain those without U.S. citizenship, the Richmond Police Department's outreach program has become a model for success. That some 70 illegal immigrants feel comfortable enough to show up here is no small victory.
Political ire isn't the only barrier. Illegal immigrants are easy targets for crime because they tend to carry large amounts of cash: Not only are employers apt to pay them under the table, but many immigrants are leery of banks. They're known in many inner cities as "walking ATMs" who are less likely to report violent crime.
The fear of police is well-ingrained in the Hispanic community, says McKenna Brown, director of world studies and a professor of Spanish at Virginia Commonwealth University. It's not just the political environment and language barriers in the United States that cause this fear, but many immigrants have fled countries where police corruption is rampant.
"It is scary for everyone," says Cristina Rebeil, a lawyer who represents illegal immigrants at Virginia Poverty Law Center. When criminals target the illegal immigrant population and crimes go unreported, the level of criminal activity only increases. "These criminals think they can't be caught," Rebeil says.
The fear of police and frequent crime have also helped fuel a growing gang problem in some Hispanic communities. To protect themselves, these community members take matters into their own hands by forming gangs, which can escalate the violence.
The Southwood meeting is just part of the police effort. The city has tapped federal grants to launch the Richmond Gang Reduction and Intervention Program, which in part targets gang activity in Hispanic communities.
Esther Welch, the Richmond GRIP coordinator, says the U.S. Department of Justice frequently uses the Richmond program as a model of success.
The Southwood area was selected because of its large Hispanic population, high crime rate and the fact that most gangs there are "home grown," another term for a local gang with a neighborhood affiliation.
To counter the emergence of gang activity in Southwood, the city opened a resource center in July 2006. The center provides health and support resources and works with residents to identify the emerging gangs, and then intervene. It also launched an after-school program for at-risk students.
While crime in the Hispanic community isn't as pronounced in Chesterfield County as it is in Richmond, police there are also beginning to reach out in a similar fashion.
Chesterfield Police Capt. Dan Kelly says the department routinely hands out refrigerator magnets as well as pamphlets with police phone numbers to Hispanic victims of crime and at Hispanic businesses. The pamphlets also work to reassure Spanish-speaking residents that police officers aren't out to get them. Recently, Kelly says, a bilingual police officer with the county fielded questions from the Latino population on a local radio station.
"We do not conduct roundups or do anything of that nature, but if someone commits a crime, they will be held accountable just as everyone else," Kelly says. "We do not have the authority to search for illegal immigrants -- that's just not what we do."
It's not an easy sell. At the urging of the Chesterfield County Board of Supervisors earlier this year, county officials released a report estimating the costs of supplying services to illegal immigrants at $2.1 million, not counting public education, and offered solutions for ridding the county of the expense. One solution was a zoning fix to prevent overcrowded homes, a characteristic of the illegal immigrant community, and giving police more authority to detain illegals.
In Virginia, the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials even proposed building the country's first state-run facility to hold only illegal immigrants. Currently, illegal immigrants who are arrested are held in local jails, federal facilities and private prisons.
In April 2006, Congress considered legislation that would legally classify the country's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants as felons. The legislation failed, but not before sending a message to illegal immigrants: The government isn't your ally.
At Southwood's community center last week, a crowd forms at the door while latecomers shuffle in from the rain. Hispanic men and women line the walls for the two-hour meeting. A sign-up sheet asking for names, phone numbers and the types of services desired travels down the five rows of folding chairs filled by attentive listeners.
Enrique Escorza, the state's Mexican consul, speaks fast and passionately to the crowd in Spanish, telling them to obey local laws. He says not to drink and drive and not to attract attention. He tells them to be grateful for the services the police provide.
He says the closeness of police and community is a product of an authentic desire to communicate. In other areas where police try to host meetings with Hispanics, he says, it's common for only a handful of people to show up.
Richmond Police also have teamed up with the Richmond Outreach Center (ROC) to hold Hispanic citizens academies with sessions on personal safety and crime prevention. No one attended the first Hispanic academy, says Officer GiTonya Parker, who also coordinates the program at ROC. When the police started getting involved, she says, people started to show.
It's a process that starts with the children, says Lt. Harvey Powers, who at the Southwood meeting hands out a red balloon to a young girl accompanying her parents.
"I can see the change the most with the children," Powers says. "In communities where Latinos are victims, we are trying to engage. And we have seen in our own reports a decrease in crime such as auto thefts and burglary." Since the outreach started, Powers says, overall crime in Southwood is on the decline. In the last year, armed robberies are down 43 percent, while overall crime has dropped 8 percent.
Since the outreach started, police also have worked with Hispanic residents in breaking up a prostitution ring in Southwood, not to mention an illegal drug operation. "This tells us where we're reaching the right people," Powers says. SClick here for more News and Features