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Large Virginia county ends immigration enforcement agreement

Ann B. Wheeler chairs the Prince William Board of County Supervisors as part of the Democratic majority. (Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post)

The Prince William County-Manassas jail board will allow its cooperation agreement with federal authorities to expire, ending a program championed by former Board of County Supervisors chairman Corey A. Stewart that made the Virginia community a national symbol of hard-line immigration enforcement.

With Stewart, a Republican, out of politics after a failed U.S. Senate bid last year and the county growing increasingly blue, the jail board refused to entertain a motion to renew its 287(g) agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement — despite arguments at the meeting from Trump administration officials that the program has been key to removing dangerous criminals from the community.

“I’m not seeing any hard data where the 287 program has been shown to be the direct cause of any measurable crime reduction,” Police Chief Barry M. Barnard told his fellow jail board members during a sometimes contentious debate Wednesday evening. “I do wonder if this program has run its course.”

The decision, met with anger by 287(g) supporters, allows the agreement to end June 30, officials said. It is the latest example of the political acrimony surrounding a leftward shift in the once-rural and overwhelmingly white county, where Latinos, African Americans and Asians now make up a majority of the 470,000 residents.

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This week, protesters shouted angrily at Republican Supervisors Jeanine M. Lawson (Brentsville) and Yesli Vega (Coles) after they unsuccessfully tried to change the language of a “Black Lives Matter” proclamation that was read aloud by the four African American members of the Board of County Supervisors.

This month, protesters in parts of Prince William and neighboring Manassas have lent their ­voices to the national chorus of outrage over police brutality and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody.

“Clearly, the era of Corey Stewart in Prince William County is over, and it’s over with a vengeance,” said Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political science professor at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg. “Republicans right now are starting to feel the way that Democrats did in county government for many years. When the shoe goes on the other foot, it starts to pinch.”

Prince William initially entered into the 287(g) contract in 2007, when Stewart chaired the board and Republicans held six of eight seats. The current agreement, in effect since 2009, allowed local jail officials to check the immigration status of people arrested for a variety of crimes and turn those suspected of being in the country illegally over to federal agents for deportation proceedings.

Since 2017, it has led to the transfer of 2,639 county inmates to ICE custody after their jail sentences finished. More than half — 1,612 — had served time for driving under the influence, according to ICE officials who testified Wednesday. Sixty-five inmates were charged with murder, and 277 were accused of sexual assault.

The agreement’s expiration leaves rural Culpeper County as the only jurisdiction in Virginia to have a 287(g) agreement.

The heated debate leading up to the Prince William jail board’s decision echoed the days in the 2000s when the county was deeply divided over immigration — a time when county board meetings on the issue were dominated by hours of emotional testimony for and against tougher enforcement.

Today, Democrats hold five of the eight county board seats, including the chairmanship. That Democratic majority pushed to end the ICE cooperation pact and appointed several new members to the 11-person jail board, over intense opposition from Republican supervisors.

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On Wednesday, the jail board meeting reflected those political divisions, with each side accusing the other of manipulating data to support its argument.

Trump administration officials highlighted some of the most dangerous criminals targeted for deportation through the program, and Manassas Police Chief Douglas W. Keen said 90 percent of gang members arrested in Northern Virginia have been in the country illegally.

“It’s not about politics at all. It’s 100 percent about public safety,” Henry Lucero, ICE’s executive associate director of enforcement and removal operations, told the board.

State Del. Elizabeth R. Guzman (D-Prince William), one of the newly appointed board members, took exception to those characterizations.

“As a person who comes from another country who is Hispanic, that really hurt me,” said Guzman, who was born in Peru and entered local politics as a community activist working to defeat the original 287(g) agreement. “We’re trying to change here in Prince William County, after we were labeled so long as criminals.”

Guzman and others say the agreement struck terror in immigrant communities after some people were arrested for minor traffic infractions and later deported. As a result, they said, undocumented immigrants were less willing to cooperate with local police, fearing that they, too, would be turned in.

The program’s supporters counter that allowing people accused of more serious crimes to remain in the country generates even more terror.

“It’s not an issue of people fearing the police,” Vega, a former county police officer whose election last year made her the county’s first Latina supervisor, said at a board meeting last month.

“It’s an issue about allowing these predators [to continue] to victimize members of our immigrant communities and say, ‘If you go and report me for molesting your child, I will call ICE on you.’ ”

Barnard, the police chief, said the program has caused more harm than good. “One thing for me is: How does it affect the trust in our community?” he said, adding that some Latino residents “make the connection between local police and what is going on in the jail.”

Prince William Sheriff Glendell Hill (R), who chairs the jail board, defended the program, calling it a national model for effective immigration enforcement and a “tool that we use to keep our community safe.”

Other board members argued that it’s time for the state’s second-largest jurisdiction to use other policing tools.

“It’s just broken,” said Tracey A. Lenox, a defense attorney in Manassas who was recently appointed after becoming the county’s first public defender.

Addressing Hill and other law enforcement officials on the board, Lenox said ending the program “is an opportunity for you guys to send a message to your minority population . . . and tell them: ‘All right, we get it, 287(g) has got to go.’ ”

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