Virginia’s largest jurisdiction on Tuesday declared itself a welcoming and accepting place for immigrants but steered clear of the word “sanctuary,” a term that could spark a backlash from the Trump administration.
Despite urging from advocates, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors also declined to declare itself opposed to a Muslim registry, an idea President Trump floated on the campaign trail.
“Frankly, we don’t know what’s going to be happening in the future with federal policies or federal programs,” said Supervisor Linda Q. Smyth (D-Providence). “They’re going to be changing, and we may have to respond to something specific. But at the moment, we don’t have that. What we’re looking at are guidelines for how we do react.”
President Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions have said they will withhold federal funding from “sanctuary jurisdictions,” a loosely defined term that, among other things, refers to localities that limit cooperation between immigration authorities and local police.
The threats have left many jurisdictions trying to strike a balance between reassuring immigrants fearful of stepped-up deportation efforts and avoiding sanctions from a White House that has said an immigration crackdown is critical to maintaining public safety.
In Maryland, the legislature is sparring over a bill that critics say would make the state a sanctuary jurisdiction and supporters say would simply codify existing policy into law. Elsewhere in the country, mayors and other elected officials alternate between declaring their jurisdictions safe havens for those here illegally to announcing their willingness to cooperate with federal agents.
The guidelines adopted in Fairfax on Tuesday mostly reaffirm existing policies on immigration enforcement, underscored by a message of tolerance for the county’s 1.1 million residents.
“We are a safe, diverse and caring community,” said Sharon Bulova (D), the board chair. “If that harmony is threatened, I believe it is our duty to speak out and clearly articulate our values.”
County police are prohibited from arresting anyone solely based on immigration status, but they cooperate with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement in cases involving serious crimes.
Schools are federally mandated to accept all students, regardless of their immigration status. And, the Sheriff’s Department holds inmates wanted by ICE for up to 48 hours after they’ve completed their jail sentence.
While the new guidelines don’t change those policies, some supervisors said they may offer reassurance to residents who have been traumatized by recent reports of ICE raids and arrests.
“Children are getting gastrointestinal problems, leaving their homes in the middle of the night, scratching themselves, cutting themselves, due to high anxiety or depression,” Supervisor Jeff C. McKay (D-Lee) said. “Those are kids I’m proud to represent, and I’m very proud to tell them what Fairfax County does and how we handle issues of immigration.”
Supervisor Pat Herrity (R-Springfield) dismissed the guidelines as ineffectual political correctness and said the county should focus instead on an increase in gang violence that police say is partly tied to an influx of unaccompanied minors who arrived illegally from Central America.
“Personally, I see this as a statement done for political reasons,” Herrity said before voting to adopt the guidelines. “I won’t oppose this, but I really think we need to focus on getting solutions to these issues.”
Immigration activists pushed the county to adopt a sanctuary policy and to declare to residents that Fairfax would never assist the Trump administration in creating a registry of Muslim immigrants.
“They should not just be sending a message that we’re all welcome, but also adopting a strong posture that says we’re not going to permit this kind of activity,” said Evelin Urrutia, director of Tenants and Workers United. “People want to feel safer.”
Supervisor Catherine M. Hudgins (D-Hunter Mill) pushed for that idea, saying it would deepen the community’s trust in the county. But others on the board cautioned against getting too far ahead of Trump administration policies on immigration, which are still being formulated.
Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, a community organizer with Legal Aid Justice Center, called the guidelines a positive step. “We wanted them to be more emphatic,” he said. “But it gives us an avenue to push Fairfax to always be a county that welcomes immigrants and that respects the community.”