McDonnell wants troopers deputized to check stopped drivers' immigration status

By Anita Kumar, Carol Morello and Rosalind S. Helderman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 4, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Gov. Robert F. McDonnell said Tuesday that he has spent months trying to reach an agreement with the federal government to train and deputize state troopers to act as immigration and customs agents to make legal status checks and refer individuals for deportation.

McDonnell (R), a former state attorney general who has helped several localities, including Prince William County, enter into similar agreements, said he expects to make an announcement soon.

"We're working on that," he told reporters at a news conference outside the state Capitol on Tuesday.

McDonnell's comments came a day after Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II issued an opinion that authorizes police to ask anyone stopped for any reason about his or her immigration status.

The governor said that he agreed with Cuccinelli's opinion, which is similar to an opinion he issued in 2007, but that he lacked the legal authority to force local police to act.

"I think local law enforcement officials have had the authority for a number of years,'' McDonnell told reporters. "We believe our state and local officers have the ability to make those inquiries . . . and turn them over for the appropriate proceedings."

Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William), who requested Cuccinelli's legal opinion and subsequently wrote to McDonnell to codify the language in the opinion, said he hopes the ruling will give local governments the assurance that they are on "firm constitutional ground" if they choose to request that their law enforcement departments inquire about immigration more frequently.

"They could make this a priority," he said. "This is a determination that elected officials have to make."

A 2008 Virginia law requires that jail officials check the immigration status of everyone who has been arrested and taken into custody. Cuccinelli's opinion does not require police to act, but it allows officers to check the status of those who are arrested, whether or not they are jailed, and to inquire about the immigration status of everyone who is stopped, including those pulled over for a traffic violation or at a police checkpoint.

In a statement, Cuccinelli insisted that his opinion "simply declares what is existing law." Groups that have called for stricter enforcement of immigration laws expressed hope that police departments throughout the state will start routine immigration checks of motorists they stop. But an immigrant advocacy group warned McDonnell in a letter late Tuesday that it would sue if he directed law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of those who have been stopped.

As public attention focused on Cuccinelli's opinion Tuesday, it remained unclear whether the legal advisory would result in any practical change.

Dana G. Schrad, executive director of the Virginia Association of Chiefs of Police, said Cuccinelli's opinion offered advice, not a mandate. Local policies sometimes limit when police should ask about immigration. Some departments advise their officers to avoid asking about immigration during criminal investigations, which might discourage victims or witnesses from cooperating.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2010 The Washington Post Company