Sunday, April 15, 2007

VIRGINIA BEACH (AP) — The deaths of two teenagers whose car was hit by an illegal alien from Mexico has prompted some to portray Virginia Beach as a “sanctuary city” in which officials are lax in enforcing immigration laws.

Alfredo Ramos has been charged with aggravated involuntary manslaughter in the March 30 deaths of Alison Kunhardt, 17, and Tessa Tranchant, 16. A car driven by Mr. Ramos slammed into the back of the teenagers’ vehicle at a stoplight in Virginia Beach.

Mr. Ramos had been convicted of three alcohol-related misdemeanor offenses in Virginia Beach and Chesapeake in the months before the accident, but he hadn’t been turned over to federal authorities because police apparently had not checked his immigration status.

A 2005 Virginia Beach Police Department policy forbids officers from asking the immigration status of defendants charged with misdemeanors. Police Chief Jake Jacocks Jr. has said the policy is meant to encourage illegal aliens to report crimes without fear of retribution.

Other communities nationwide have similar policies, which critics say amounts to giving protection to criminals.

But some say the “sanctuary city” label is wrong.

“Virginia Beach is not a sanctuary city under the traditional definition of it,” said Tim Freilich, legal director for the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers in Charlottesville.

The term grew out of the sanctuary movement, when churches across the country gave refuge to unauthorized Central Americans fleeing civil war in their countries. Some U.S. cities adopted ordinances welcoming the foreigners.

There is no generally accepted official description of what constitutes a “sanctuary city,” and no federal agency awards the distinction.

Cambridge, Mass., is one of a few U.S. communities — Virginia Beach is not one — to officially declare itself as a sanctuary. Takoma Park also defines itself as a sanctuary, stating in an ordinance that all residents have “equal right to enjoy the benefits of Takoma Park without fear of harassment or discrimination due to their nationality or citizenship status.”

Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly called Virginia Beach a sanctuary city in recent programs about the teenagers’ deaths, accusing the police chief and mayor of protecting illegal aliens.

In a syndicated column last month before the fatal accident, Mr. O’Reilly defined sanctuary cities as municipalities that “have flat out told Homeland Security that they will not cooperate with any investigations into the legal status of illegal workers.”

Virginia Beach was not among 32 cities and counties that the Congressional Research Service listed as having “sanctuary policies” in a report last year.

The nonpartisan research arm of Congress defined sanctuary cities as those that don’t cooperate with federal immigration authorities and have adopted various policies to ensure that employees, including police officers, do not turn over to federal authorities illegal aliens living in their city.

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