Virginia gubernatorial candidates Ralph Northam (D), left, and Ed Gillespie (R) before a September debate. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

As Tuesday’s elections approach in Virginia, there’s still plenty of confusion over accusations that the state may have “sanctuary” cities that have policies blunting federal efforts to find and arrest undocumented immigrants, especially criminals.

Republican political activists are busy foisting the idea that Democratic gubernatorial nominee Ralph Northam is somehow soft on enforcing immigration laws and supports cities or counties that have policies protecting illegal immigrants. Northam did himself damage when was bullied into saying he wouldn’t allow sanctuary cities if elected.

The truth is that Virginia has no sanctuary localities, but it depends upon who is collecting the information and who defines what a “sanctuary” is.  Take Chesterfield, my home county. A couple of weeks ago, I was talking with a friend who happens to have conservative views. He said he looked up “sanctuary counties” on the Internet and it turns out that Chesterfield was on the list. In fact, it was the only locality in Virginia so designated.

Curious, I looked it up. He was right. Then I noticed something else. The source was the D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, a right-wing advocacy group that aims to restrict immigration.

The group claimed it was using a 2014 report from the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency claiming that some 340 localities in the country, including Chesterfield, don’t honor requests by federal officials to further detain people who have been arrested, charged with a crime, have been in jail and are ready to leave incarceration.

After the anti-immigration group posted its report in 2015, people started calling Chesterfield Sheriff Karl Leonard to ask what was going on.

According to the Chesterfield Observer, Leonard stated emphatically that the county is not a sanctuary. It merely will not continue to hold people in jail for longer than they are required to be there. He added that his office tries to cooperate with ICE in any way it can, notably by informing them of the immigration status of jail prisoners.

ICE has asked localities across the country to keep non-U.S. citizens in jail for up to 48 hours after they are scheduled to be released so ICE can determine if they have broken immigration laws and might be deportable.

Some localities honor these so-called federal immigration detainers. Virginia law doesn’t require that sheriffs or other jail keepers do so.

Leonard told the Observer that he asked the county attorney’s office what to do and was told not to honor such requests. Attorney General Mark Herring (D) has said that the ICE detainers are simply requests. What’s more, people who have been in a jail for one issue and were detained under the ICE requests have sued and won for abuse of their rights.

This comes back to the key question: What is the definition of a “sanctuary” city?

It depends on who is doing the defining. The Center for Immigration Studies, which has no official government authority, chose to claim that the 340 localities listed in an ICE report were “sanctuaries.”

In an interview with the Observer, Jessica Vaughan, director of policy studies for CIS and one of the co-authors of the recent report, acknowledged that “there is no official definition of sanctuary. I have defined a sanctuary city as one that obstructs ICE.”

So, there you have it. An advocacy group with a clear point of view creates a definition. It’s on the Web and people believe it. Then it figures in a hotly contested gubernatorial race in attack ads and on the stump. And people still believe it.