Young Latino activists in Northern Virginia are trying to punish a Democratic state legislator for his work for an immigration detention center, demanding that he apologize, be stripped of his leadership position in the General Assembly and use the money he earned to help undocumented detainees.
Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, a Democrat who has represented a Hispanic-heavy South Arlington district since 2012, was paid more than $5,000 a year in 2014 and more than $10,000 a year in 2015 and 2016 by Immigration Centers of America (ICA), which operates a detention center in Farmville, Va. , according to his state financial disclosure reports.
La Colectiva, a group of college- and post-college-aged activists, says the income means he has "betrayed and backstabbed" the immigrant community. The group, along with other campus-based immigrant organizations, is asking the Virginia House Democratic Caucus to unseat Lopez as minority whip when the legislature reconvenes in January.
Lopez, a U.S.-born son of a Venezuelan immigrant, is a lawyer and partner in two consulting firms. Normally responsive to media inquiries, he declined repeated requests by The Washington Post to discuss his work for the ICA Farmville center. In a statement, he said he has properly filed financial disclosures, is proud of his heritage, and is "an open, honest and a fierce advocate" for his community.
J. Walter Tejada, president of the Virginia Latino Leaders Council, praised Lopez for, among other things, fighting to expand in-state tuition for immigrants and helping to create a trust fund for affordable housing.
But at a time when the Trump administration is cracking down on undocumented immigrants, increasing arrests and terminating programs that provide temporary legal status, Tejada said that the concerns raised by La Colectiva and the other groups have resonance.
"This is very uncomfortable and difficult for all of us," he said. "We need to learn more about this situation."
Officials at the detention center did not respond to several requests for comment.
The campaign by the young Latinos shows the growing strength in Virginia of progressive groups, which helped flip more than a dozen House seats from Republican to Democrat in the off-year election last month. (Lopez easily defeated his Republican opponent.)
Activists say that they are ready to exercise the power they earned knocking on doors, making phone calls and executing social media strategies, and that they are willing to make Lopez, 47, one of their targets.
"This is a wake-up call to other representatives," said Aurea Galvan, a member of George Mason University's "dreamers" group, which includes undocumented immigrants brought to the United States as children who were shielded from deportation under Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, an Obama-era program that will begin expiring in March. "We gave you our support, and we go around canvassing for you, and you give us your word that our community is safe. You're going to be held accountable."
La Colectiva member Irma Corado, 27, said her group learned about Lopez's ICA income this summer. The disclosure forms do not require legislators to detail their work, or say how much they were paid beyond a specific threshold, which was $5,000 in 2014 but went up to $10,000 in 2015. The activists met twice with Lopez, who told them that his work for the center involved "federal consulting" and was done during the Obama administration, which in general did not embrace as broad a crackdown on illegal immigration as President Trump has.
To make their outrage clear, the activists disrupted Lopez's election party last month, as well as a victory party for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam (D), who angered the group by saying that he would not support the establishment of "sanctuary cities" in Virginia. Days later, they confronted Lopez in an Arlington parking lot, demanding that he apologize and admit to "profiting from immigration detention centers."
In a video of the encounter, which La Colectiva posted on its Facebook page, a frustrated Lopez tells the protesters that ambushing him is not effective.
"You guys don't want any borders. You don't want any detention. We have international treaties," he says in the video. "We've had conversations about this. If you're going to do this, do it properly, in a meeting. . . . Last time you did this, you did it in front of my little boy, my 10-year-old boy."
Corado said that the groups want Lopez to prove that he has cut all ties to the ICA detention center — and that the fact that he has not reported income from them since spring 2016 is not proof enough. They are also calling for the money Lopez earned from the Farmville center to be turned over to a third party to create a fund to help detainees make bond.
"Our endgame is to use him as an example of what happens when you say one thing and do another," Corado said.
More-established Latino and Democratic leaders expressed support for Lopez, including Del. David J. Toscano (Charlottesville), the House minority leader, who will decide the minority whip position in January. Del. Charniele L. Herring (Alexandria), chair of the Virginia House Democratic Caucus, said that efforts to create a schism between party leaders and individual delegates won't work.
Northern Virginia's lawmakers are among the most liberal in the General Assembly, "and Alfonso is an important part of that," Herring said. "I don't see any division or divide between us, and I don't see it as symptomatic of anything."
Tejada, a longtime friend who said Lopez helped him in his first successful campaign for the Arlington County Board in 2003, said he does not know the details of Lopez's work for ICA.
Other state lawmakers who are also lawyers, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation, suggested that Lopez may be bound by attorney-client privilege or a nondisclosure agreement that prevents him from talking about his work with the center, which houses immigrants arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"He's unable to provide detail that would help us understand the situation better," Tejada said, adding that the council he leads "has an obligation" to help resolve the differences between Lopez and the activist groups.
"I'm hopeful that we can collectively work together to resolve this soon," Tejada said. "We are actively under discussions, trying to bring everybody together."