Va. Police Back Off Immigration Enforcement

"The federal government has completely dropped the ball," said Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax). He said illegal immigrants are a financial drain on taxpayers. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 6, 2005

The Virginia State Police have backed off a plan that would have allowed some officers to make immigration arrests, a prospect that had been fiercely opposed by immigrant rights advocates.

The state police chief, Col. Steve Flaherty, said last week that his department has decided against proceeding with an agreement with federal authorities that would have made Virginia the third state in the nation to adopt such a practice.

"We're not moving forward with it at this particular point in time," he said in an interview.

The idea of involving police in immigration enforcement has attracted growing interest since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were carried out by 19 foreigners, three of them in the country illegally. Florida and Alabama have signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security under which dozens of their police officers have been authorized to make immigration arrests, typically a federal responsibility.

"We have municipalities and states approach us all the time and inquire about it," said Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of Homeland Security.

But several localities that expressed interest in the idea have ultimately abandoned it because of a lack of resources or opposition from immigrant groups worried about ethnic profiling. Even police have been split over whether it makes sense.

Virginia offers an example of the sensitivity surrounding the issue: While state police were negotiating their agreement last year with Homeland Security officials, the Virginia legislature passed a bill giving local and state police slightly more power to enforce immigration law.

Immigrants panicked, despite the fact that the Virginia law was very narrowly drawn. It allowed police to arrest only convicted felons who had re-entered the country illegally after being deported.

"It created a huge problem for us when the law was first passed," said Col. Rick Rappoport, police chief in the city of Fairfax. Rumors swept through ethnic communities that anyone lacking proper documents could be picked up, prompting some immigrants to stop dealing with law enforcement authorities. A few even hid at home and hoarded food, police said.

Immigrant advocacy groups in Virginia expressed alarm about the potential for misuse of the new law and pressed state police not to seek further immigration authority.

"A number of the police we met with realized if they want immigrants to report crimes and be witnesses, they can't be in fear of being arrested," said Deborah Sanders, executive director of the Capital Area Immigrants' Rights Coalition.

Flaherty, the state police chief, said he was sensitive to the immigrant groups' concerns. But putting on hold the federal agreement, which would have given the extra authority to at least two dozen of his officers, was "more of a practical decision," he said. He said authorities determined that the new Virginia law covered the kinds of immigrants that state police were worried about -- such as drug traffickers or gang members.

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