Police Enforcement of Immigration Laws Raises Worry

By Bill Turque and Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, October 1, 2006

At the Bestway Supermarket on Elden Street, where shoppers browse to merengue music and signs touting the specials are in Spanish and English, Latino customers say they don't know much about Herndon's new mayor or Town Council.

But they do say the town's Hispanic community was buzzing last week with the news that those in charge, whoever they are, want police to become la migra, federal immigration agents.

"Everyone is afraid," said Byron Flores, 26, who has lived in Herndon since immigrating illegally from Honduras three years ago. The number of illegal immigrants reporting crime is likely to plummet, he said, for fear that the police will ask for their papers.

Many people are thinking about moving away, he said, including him.

"Maybe to Seven Corners."

Herndon's council voted last week to apply to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement for enrollment in the agency's "Section 287(g)" program, which trains local police officers to determine whether criminal suspects in custody are illegal immigrants. Officers certified by the program can detain them and even begin deportation proceedings before turning cases over to the federal agency. Seven state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide have joined the program. A dozen more are seeking to enroll officers.

The prospect of Herndon's entry into the program has again placed the town near the epicenter of the national debate on immigration policy. About a quarter of its 23,000 residents are Latino immigrants, according to census data.

It has also rekindled tensions that emerged with the council's decision last year to open a publicly funded day-labor center to help immigrant workers find jobs. Supporters, including former mayor Michael L. O'Reilly, said the federal government's failure to control the borders gave them no choice. Opponents of the center, which does not try to determine the immigration status of workers, said the town was abetting illegal activity. In May, voters unseated O'Reilly and two council members in what was viewed as frustration over the issue.

During O'Reilly's tenure, Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers Jr. rejected the idea of entering the 287(g) program for precisely the reasons expressed by the Latino patrons at Bestway.

"Herndon Police Department involvement with enforcing immigration laws could create barriers for segments of our community," he wrote to Town Manager Stephen F. Owen in a Jan. 22, 2004, memo. "Such action would tend to be counterproductive to our community policing philosophy, which promotes partnerships and building trust."

But shortly after taking office, Mayor Steve J. DeBenedittis, joined by four new council members (and two holdovers) discussed Summers's status in a closed-door meeting.

"I was not invited," Summers said.

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