- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 18, 2007

More than half of the region’s police departments have no written policies on how officers should handle issues concerning illegal aliens or immigration enforcement, according to information obtained by The Washington Times under Freedom of Information Act requests.

Nearly all of the departments with written policies prohibit officers from asking people about their immigration status in most if not all cases.

Municipalities such as Prince William and Loudoun counties, frustrated by the federal government’s inability to enact immigration reform, are trying to reverse the trend through ordinances and enforcement policies.

“We’re in a gray area,” said Ronald A. Ricucci, police chief for the city of Takoma Park, which has the most lenient enforcement policy in the region. “Obviously, you don’t want to put criminals back on the street.”

The Times filed 25 FOIA requests with police and sheriff’s departments in the District and nearby cities, counties and towns in Maryland and Virginia.

Officials from 13 police departments told The Times they do not have an official departmental policy on illegal aliens or immigration enforcement: the towns of Bladensburg, Cheverly, Elkton and Vienna; and the cities of District Heights, Fairfax, Falls Church, Gaithersburg, Hyattsville, Laurel, Leesburg, Manassas and Manassas Park.

Loudoun County supervisors yesterday passed a resolution modeled after one approved in Prince William County last week reaffirming the county’s commitment to uphold federal law. While the Prince William measure includes a law-enforcement provision, Loudoun’s resolution focuses mostly on denying illegal aliens public services.

The Congressional Research Service (CRS), Congress’ nonpartisan research arm, defines a sanctuary city as one that “promotes policies that ensure [illegal] aliens … will not be turned over to federal authorities.”

These include “don’t ask, don’t tell” policies where localities do not require employees — including police officers — to report illegal aliens to federal immigration officials, according to the center.

Takoma Park prohibits all city employees from cooperating with federal immigration officials in the investigation or arrest of illegal aliens for civil or criminal violations of federal immigration law.

Police officers never question people on immigration status — even when a person is found to have an outstanding immigration-related warrant upon a check of the National Crime Information Center (NCIC) database, Chief Ricucci said.

“We don’t get into that,” he said. “We lock up criminals.”

Chief Ricucci said yesterday he has asked the city council to revise the ordinance so federal officials can be notified in such cases.

Takoma Park is one of 32 localities — and the only one in the region — defined as a sanctuary city in a 2006 CRS report. However, police departments in many other nearby localities have similar policies in place.

In Montgomery and Prince George’s counties and the city of Rockville, officers are prohibited from asking people about their immigration status but will notify federal immigration officials if an existing warrant is found during a check of the NCIC database.

“As a policy, we do not inquire about immigration status in any encounter,” said Lt. Porsha Jones, spokeswoman for the Montgomery County Police Department.

Cpl. Stephen Pacheco, spokesman for the Prince George’s County Police Department, said officers do not question people’s immigration status.

“When there’s a crime, we run [suspects] through the NCIC database, and if they’re wanted, we notify the proper agency,” he said.

The same is true in the District.

The Metropolitan Police Department prohibits officers from asking people about their immigration status for the purpose of enforcing civil immigration law, but it cooperates with federal authorities for investigations into criminal immigration violations. They include felonies and such misdemeanors as harboring illegal aliens or re-entering the United States after having been deported, which are prosecuted in federal court.

Illegal presence in the United States is considered a civil immigration violation.

Greenbelt police “will not stop persons for the sole purpose of determining immigration status” nor “arrest a person when the only violation is an infraction of a federal immigration law,” the department’s policy states.

Officers notify federal immigration officials if an illegal alien is arrested for a felony or serious misdemeanor such as a handgun violation, according to the policy.

The Code of Virginia was amended in July 2004 to give local and state police limited authority to arrest illegal aliens. Officers may arrest based on “reasonable suspicion” that an illegal alien has committed a crime and previously has been convicted of a felony and deported or voluntarily left the United States after such a conviction.

“Determining a suspect’s immigration status cannot be the sole purpose to stop a person or to form the basis for an investigation or inquiry,” wrote Charles E. Samarra, then-chief of the Alexandria Police Department, in a staff memo before the amendment took effect.

Fairfax County police also clarified its policy when the amendment passed.

“There is no statutory authority under Virginia law for a local law-enforcement officer to arrest a person solely for being an ‘illegal alien’ in violation of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act,” a police memo states.

The department also updated its policy on arrest procedures, which describes the circumstances under which police should notify U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE): a pre-existing ICE warrant found on the NCIC database; terrorist or subversive activities; fraudulent activity aimed at assisting illegal aliens to enter the country; possession of a firearm; organized crime, including gambling, prostitution and narcotics distribution; criminal street gang involvement; and felonies.

Arlington County similarly bars police officers from asking about a person’s immigration status unless they are arrested for a violent felony; convicted of a felony, regardless of whether that felony involved violence; arrested for a terrorism-related offense or suspected of terrorist or subversive activities; arrested for fraudulent activity aimed at assisting illegal entry or assimilation in the country; reasonably suspected of criminal street gang activity; or a previously deported felon.

Prince William County had a similar policy until Police Chief Charlie T. Deane suspended it earlier this month while the department drafts a new, more stringent one as mandated by the Board of County Supervisors.

The board unanimously voted July 10 to require police officers to ask about immigration status in all arrests if there is probable cause to think that a suspect has violated federal immigration law. The board gave the police department 60 days to establish standards of probable cause and methods by which officers can determine lawful presence.

“The police department should not be setting policy — they should be following it,” said George Taplin, director of Minuteman Civil Defense Corps’ Virginia chapter.

Prince William police also plan to pursue training authorized under Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows state and local law-enforcement agencies to work with federal officials to identify and detain illegal aliens.

The town of Herndon last month became the first locality in the region to complete 287(g) training. Staff at the Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center recently completed training, and the Loudoun County Sheriff’s Department is in the process of formalizing a training agreement with ICE.

Herndon’s memorandum of agreement with ICE describes the authority of 287(g)-trained officers, who may interrogate a suspected illegal alien about immigration status and charge illegal aliens who commit certain crimes for immigration violations.

The Loudoun sheriff’s office does not have a separate written policy on enforcement of federal immigration law, but follows the Code of Virginia, spokesman Kraig Troxell said.

Sheriff Stephen O. Simpson said ICE training will establish appropriate standards and procedures.

“I don’t want to get into a situation where we say, ‘Any time you come across someone who looks or talks like they’re not from around here, run a background check,’ ” he said.