“It’s not about building trust with police,” said Danny Cendejas, an organizer with the activist group La ColectiVA, which released its own policy proposal alongside other advocacy organizations. “This is about communities organizing to fight for protections against abuses by ICE.”
Since last year, those groups, as well as individual community leaders, have been urging Arlington to rethink policies that they say keep undocumented immigrants from seeking out county services or interacting with police for fear of being deported.
After years of heightened fear under President Donald Trump and a coronavirus pandemic that ravaged immigrant communities early on, it’s a step that some other local governments — in Northern Virginia and beyond — have already taken.
But in deep-blue Arlington, where Democratic candidates often win by higher margins than anywhere else statewide, advocates and lawmakers alike say that it is also about bringing policies in line with the county’s self-perceived status as a welcoming, liberal community.
“Arlington for a long time has had this magical thinking about itself, and it’s finally facing the cold light of day,” said Simon Sandoval-Moshenberg, legal director of the immigrant advocacy program at Legal Aid Justice Center. The County Board is realizing that Arlington “actually has a lot of catching up to do,” he added.
Such a divide was clear in county-run listening sessions with immigrant residents last week, meant for lawmakers and officials to receive feedback on the draft framework.
With County Board members listening over Zoom, a succession of residents at one session on Tuesday evening described mostly in Spanish — and sometimes in painful detail — about how their immigration or citizenship status had colored their experiences living in Arlington.
Fear of deportation had prevented one woman from calling the police. Another said she had been mistreated by county staff for seeking basic services.
“Some of our residents haven’t felt and don’t feel safe, and we need to focus on what is essential to safety,” said County Board Chair Matt de Ferranti (D). “That’s what we should be about in terms of public safety — not federal immigration law.”
He conceded that although the county has a “pretty lengthy record” of inclusive policies toward immigrants, “it’s not as good as we might like.”
Just under one in four Arlington residents are foreign-born, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, with the largest communities of immigrants hailing from Bolivia, China, Ethiopia and El Salvador. About one-quarter of the immigrant population across Virginia is undocumented, according to estimates from the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute.
Federal and state law requires Arlington to work or communicate with federal authorities in certain ways, such as submitting the fingerprints of jail inmates into a federal database that may alert ICE if that person is undocumented.
But Cendejas, of La ColectiVA, said that some police practices have unnecessarily put some of those undocumented Arlington residents at greater risk — without any mandate from above.
In one August 2019 incident, he said, Arlington police had effectively handed one man over to ICE at a traffic stop.
Following a vehicle crash on Columbia Pike, the motorist was not able to offer up a U.S. license, offering up other identifying documents instead. Because police suspected they were fake, the officers conducted a background check — which revealed he was a deported felon, said Ashley Savage, a spokeswoman for Arlington police.
That prompted officers to contact ICE, which responded to the scene and picked him up there.
County lawmakers earlier this year repealed a law that allowed police to arrest residents for failing to show a valid ID. But per Arlington Police Department policy, officers continue to have the discretion to contact ICE if someone they arrest has been charged with a violent felony, or “in serious situations where a potential threat to the public safety is perceived.”
The proposal from La ColectiVA and other groups would further limit the county’s communication with ICE and prevent federal immigration authorities from accessing county property or records, unless it is legally required by a judge.
De Ferranti said the draft framework is far from complete. “I didn’t want people to feel this was finished,” he said, noting that the county would probably vote on a fleshed-out proposal by March — despite previously saying a vote would happen by the end of this year.
Still, the greatest risk of immigrants being transferred over to ICE may fall outside the county board’s purview.
Sandoval-Moshenberg — whose organization offers legal representation to low-income residents facing deportation proceedings — said Arlington most directly puts undocumented residents at risk of deportation through its policies in the county jail.
Unlike many of Virginia’s more rural jurisdictions, Arlington does not honor ICE detainers — requests from the agency to hold undocumented inmates beyond their length of jail time until federal agents can pick them up.
But for those brought in for either a felony or most Class I misdemeanors, the county jail can and does let the agency know when someone is about to be released. Those calls, which some other sheriffs have ordered their deputies to no longer make, allow ICE agents to then assume custody.
Sheriff Beth Arthur (D), who is elected independently of the County Board, holds oversight over the county jail and its policies. Although the issue is delicate, she said, she had to balance activists’ concerns — which she had not heard directly from advocacy groups — with “public safety concerns.”
“I’m between a rock and a hard place,” she said. “If I do nothing to notify them that [someone] is going to be released from jail and that person goes out and murders somebody, then what?”
Rachel Weiner contributed to this report.