RICHMOND — Amid the national debate over illegal immigration, several Republican lawmakers in Virginia are trying to tighten the state’s already aggressive stance.
Three Republican legislators have pitched separate bills aiming to crack down on people living in Virginia who are in the United States illegally.
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) wants to make sure cities and counties comply with federal immigration detainers, which usually are requests to local law enforcement officials to hold jailed individuals beyond their release dates while federal agents decide whether to begin the deportation process.
State Sen. Richard H. Black (R-Loudoun) has a bill that would hold cities legally responsible if officials release an illegal immigrant who then commits a crime.
And state Sen. Thomas A. Garrett Jr. (R-Buckingham) wants to prohibit “sanctuary cities,” a term for communities that try to block illegal immigrants from being turned over to federal authorities.
“It’s the role of the states to tell the federal government to do their damn job,” said Garrett, who is running for Congress. “Obama, Congress, the entire federal government is pretending there’s nothing to see here.”
Compromise legislation will come before lawmakers for final votes in the last week of the legislative session, which begins Monday, and it is unclear whether amended versions of some of the measures will pass. But the debate has tapped into a national concern about illegal immigration voiced by Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump.
Also fueling worry is the 2015 high-profile shooting death in San Francisco of 32-year-old Kate Steinle, allegedly by a Mexican national who had previously been deported five times.
Lawmakers also cited the terrorist attacks in Paris last year and said they had concerns that Syrian refugees fleeing the Islamic State would export terrorism to the United States through federal resettlement programs.
Similar laws were put forward this legislative session in Florida, Arizona, Nebraska, Kansas and Wisconsin, according to Church World Service, which tracks what it calls anti-sanctuary-city bills. So far, only North Carolina has enacted such a law.
“Unfortunately, this really is a symptom of the discriminatory rhetoric in this election cycle targeting immigrants and Syrian refugees,” said the Rev. Noel Andersen, the national grass-roots coordinator for CWS. “The anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-Muslim organizations have taken this opportunity to join forces.”
Opponents say the measures could discourage victims from reporting crimes because they fear deportation and might undermine efforts by Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) to portray Virginia as open to newcomers, thereby hurting the state’s economy.
Sen. Scott A. Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the bills are part of a trend first seen in Virginia in 2007 when Prince William County directed police officers to check the immigration status of people if there was probable cause to believe that they were in the country illegally.
“We can continue to send that kind of message,” he said in a floor speech. “We can continue to say that Virginia’s not open . . . that Virginia doesn’t like people that don’t look like us or people that don’t share our values.”
But Del. David B. Albo (R-Fairfax) said illegal immigration puts too much of a strain on public safety and other resources. He said he began to work on the issue after a dozen of his constituents were killed in the Sept. 11, 2001, attack on the Pentagon.
“I would venture to say we have about every single law that you can have in Virginia to fight illegal immigration,” he said. For example, Virginia already requires law enforcement to check the immigration status of every person who is arrested.
Ever since Virginia Attorney General Mark R. Herring (D) issued an opinion last year declaring federal detainer requests optional, lawmakers have looked for ways to make them mandatory.
Albo, chairman of the House Courts of Justice Committee that hears these bills, said consensus was building around new language that would require sheriffs to comply with “lawful detainers” before an inmate’s release date, on the condition that federal officers promise to pick up detainees or pay for their stay.
That is already what happens in Arlington County, according to Paul Larson, chief deputy at the county sheriff’s office. If U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement makes a detainer request, the federal agency pays for food and medical care and picks them up within 48 hours.
“If they didn’t, we would release them,” he said. “They have not missed a person.”
As in Arlington, Virginia Beach Sheriff Ken Stolle, a former Republican state senator, said he will not hold anyone past their release date without a judge’s order.
“Last thing they want is law enforcement making decisions about who should be held and who should not be held,” he said. “There’s due process. There’s a court system for that.”