Mr. Cuccinelli's redundant advice on immigration status checks

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

IN SOME WAYS, the opinion issued last week by Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II on immigration checks is unremarkable.

In a letter, Mr. Cuccinelli essentially gave law enforcement officers the green light to check the immigration status of anyone they stop. Although the letter made headlines after news reports of the Aug. 1 death of a Virginia nun at the hands of an undocumented immigrant who was accused of driving drunk, it is dated July 30 -- two days before the tragic accident. Mr. Cuccinelli issued his pronouncement in response to a lawmaker's query about the status of Virginia law.

The opinion largely mirrors a 2007 letter issued by Robert F. McDonnell, then attorney general and now governor, which concluded that officers have the authority to ask about immigration status during routine stops. These opinions are nonbinding and do not mandate specific action on the part of the law enforcement officers, giving local jurisdiction the discretion to decide what procedures to adopt. This is a far cry from the recently blocked portion of an Arizona law that required officers to check immigration status if they had "reasonable suspicion" that a person they stopped was in the country illegally. Yet Mr. Cuccinelli's letter and his news conference serve as powerful reminders of the animus and ignorance that fuels so much of the immigration debate.

Virginia already has a number of laws on the books that require officers to check the immigration status of those who are arrested. For example, a 2008 law mandates that the immigration status of anyone arrested and jailed in the state must be checked. This approach dovetails with the federal Secure Communities program, which was begun under the Bush administration and advanced by President Obama. The program makes it easier and more financially feasible for local and state jurisdictions to verify whether someone is in the country legally.

This approach is a sensible one. But state and local law enforcement officers should not be in the business of rounding up foreign-looking or foreign-sounding individuals to check on immigration status in the absence of a criminal violation. Such an approach would only lead to racial profiling and probably scare many otherwise law-abiding immigrants from reporting crimes or cooperating with an investigation.

As for Mr. Cuccinelli, he would do better to devote himself to Virginia's genuine legal problems, rather than grandstanding about immigration matters that require no clarification.

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