Va. Task Force Looking At Illegal Immigration

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, October 27, 2007

RICHMOND, Oct. 26 -- Frustrated by Congress's failure to overhaul immigration laws, a task force of federal, state and local officials set out on its own Friday to determine how local law enforcement officials in Virginia can detain and help deport illegal immigrants.

The Alien Criminal Enforcement Task Force, which held its first meeting Friday, set an ambitious goal of spurring Congress back into action.

"The status quo is unacceptable,'' said U.S. Rep. Eric Cantor (R), who represents the Richmond area. "I think we would all say the federal government has not done its job in terms of border enforcement, in terms of immigration enforcement. The brunt of the problem is falling on the backs of the localities."

Cantor and two other Republican representatives from Virginia, Thelma Drake and J. Randy Forbes, created the 19-member task force after Congress could not agree on a package of measures to overhaul the nation's immigration policies. The panel includes representatives from state and local government and law enforcement.

The group expects to meet for several months before making recommendations that could be implemented either administratively or legislatively -- a tough task for three House members in the minority party in Congress.

Task force members talked about a variety of topics, including the possibility of building a detention center where illegal immigrants arrested for certain crimes could be held until federal officials deport them. Earlier this month, a Virginia State Crime Commission task force rejected a proposal to build a 1,000-bed detention center and instead voted to give more money to localities to house arrested illegal immigrants and to expand or build new jails.

Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, who represents several immigrant groups, including the Coalition of Latino Organizations, said she has written a letter to panel members asking that the group include members of both political parties and representatives of the immigration community.

"It's disappointing,'' she said of the makeup of the task force, which is dominated by Republicans. "You can't have positive results when it's one-sided."

Cantor, Drake, of Hampton Roads, and Forbes, of Chesapeake, said they do not consider immigration a Republican or Democratic issue. They said they did not inform the rest of the Virginia congressional delegation, which includes members of both political parties, about the task force.

"People join together in agreeing that criminal behavior on the part of people who have come here is totally unacceptable,'' Drake said. "It's a privilege to live in America, and if you break our laws, you shouldn't be here. . . . There's just widespread agreement on that."

The panel also criticized Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) for declining to authorize state law enforcement officials to assist federal authorities with the detention and deportation of illegal immigrants. Kaine has said he is reluctant for state law enforcement to assume what he thinks is a federal responsibility. But he has told state police to contact immigration officials about suspects who might be in the country illegally.

Del. John S. "Jack" Reid (R-Henrico) criticized Kaine for refusing to address immigration on the grounds that it is a federal problem but taking up global warming despite the national implications of that issue.

The General Assembly has failed to pass a proposal encouraging Kaine to enter into agreements that would authorize state law enforcement to help federal immigration officials, and the governor has said he is opposed.

"I think you have an opportunity to force the governor's hand,'' said Del. John J. Welch III (R-Virginia Beach). "We are hearing from everyone on this issue. Why can't we find a uniform approach?"

Since an immigration overhaul package died in the U.S. Senate, several organizations in Virginia have formed to try to address illegal immigration, and several localities have acted.

Prince William and Loudoun counties have voted to curtail government services to illegal immigrants, and Herndon voted to close a controversial day-laborer center frequented by many illegal immigrants. Last week, the Prince William board unanimously passed a proposal to allow police to check the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law. Fairfax County officials are trying to determine which county services could be denied to illegal immigrants, although they have not decided to do that.

On Thursday, a coalition of local governments met for the first time in Culpeper to talk about the legal status of schoolchildren, the crowding of homes and verification of legal employment. As of Friday, 28 towns, cities and counties had joined the group.

The State Crime Commission will consider several proposals next month, including automatically denying bail to illegal immigrants who commit crimes unless they can prove they are not flight risks and having law enforcement officials ask all arrestees about their immigration status. A new Virginia Commission on Immigration will advise Kaine and the General Assembly on what, if any, state policies should be adopted to address illegal immigration.

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