RICHMOND — Virginia lawmakers yesterday proposed a mandate for state sheriffs and jail wardens to initiate deportation proceedings for illegal aliens.
The proposal was one of several made by a State Crime Commission task force trying to crack down on illegal immigration.
Right now, police and jail officials must wait for federal immigration agents to decide whether to take custody of a suspect.
Task force members also recommended that Virginia adopt a uniform, statewide policy on dealing with illegal aliens but said they need a better understanding of federal law, costs and immigration statistics before making a final decision.
"What the General Assembly needs to understand is what is pre-empted [by federal law] and what is not pre-empted, what law enforcement can do and what law enforcement cannot do," said state Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, commission co-chairman. "Instead of acting in the dark, we want to shed some light on the issue."
Mr. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican, said immigration policies throughout the state are inconsistent and create enforcement problems.
"A patchwork approach to resolving the problem is not in the commonwealth's best interest," he said. "It does very little good for Virginia Beach to have one policy and for Norfolk to have a completely different policy."
The task force is scheduled to meet again Aug. 28, and the proposals also will need approval from the full General Assembly before becoming law.
Several sheriffs departments in Virginia already participate in a voluntary federal program that trains deputies to recognize illegal aliens and begin the deportation process. However, the new proposal would make the program mandatory for every Virginia jail.
This was the task force's second meeting, which took place two weeks after Prince William County supervisors unanimously passed a resolution aimed at denying public services to illegal aliens and toughening local immigration enforcement. Loudoun County supervisors passed a similar resolution last week.
Though the proposals were introduced out of frustration with U.S. lawmakers' inability to pass a federal immigration-reform law, Virginia lawmakers also have had little success.
Roughly 50 immigration-related bills were introduced during the 2007 General Assembly session. Most of them were rejected. And many of them, the task force learned yesterday, were pre-empted by existing federal laws, according to presentations by William Benos, a Richmond lawyer specializing in immigration issues, and Thomas E. Cleator, senior staff lawyer for the commission.
The only clear federal-state boundary in immigration law is related to employment penalties.
"This is the one area of federal pre-emption that is crystal clear," Mr. Cleator said.
U.S. Code expressly pre-empts state action on the issue, such as legislation that directly penalizes an employer for hiring an illegal alien.
State legislatures can hold employers accountable "through licensing and similar law." However, even a proposal to deny business licenses to employers who knowingly hire illegal aliens probably would face legal challenges, Mr. Benos said.
Other areas, such as the role of local and state police officers in enforcing immigration law, are more ambiguous.
"It is not clear what the state's role is in enforcing immigration law," Mr. Cleator said.
Delegate David B. Albo, commission co-chairman, expressed frustration that state lawmakers' hands essentially are tied by the federal government, which doesn't enforce its laws.
"We have this whole package of laws that would work if the federal government did anything, but they don't," said Mr. Albo, Fairfax Republican.
The task force also heard presentations from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials, who described the national crime databases and other resources available through the Homeland Security Department. ICE officials also discussed efforts to crack down on immigration-related fraud, one of the major incentives for illegal aliens to come to the United States.