- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 10, 2008

NOKESVILLE, Va. (AP) - The decision to give Prince William County police officers federal training on handling illegal aliens was perceived as one of the toughest crackdowns on illegals in the country, but more than 500 of the officers are learning they can do little to confront the problem directly.

The entire 530-member police force is in training to understand the new duties under a countywide policy on illegal aliens passed last year by the county’s board of supervisors. Police Chief Charlie T. Deane expects to implement the new policy ” which received national attention as one of the most aggressive in the country ” early next month.

But after researching federal and state law, the county found it can do little directly to enforce immigration law, which is primarily a federal issue.

“There are very few laws that give you clear authority in this area,” Chief Deane told officers in a videotaped message that is part of the day-long training sessions.

The chief said the plan is to focus on “criminal illegal aliens,” not illegals who are otherwise law-abiding. The training sessions included frequent warnings against engaging in racial profiling. And they stress crime victims and witnesses are exempt from questioning about their residency status.

Officers learn that even a volunteered admission by an illegal alien of his or her unlawful status is insufficient to take action other than documenting the encounter, unless it can be verified through a database check that federal immigration authorities have initiated either criminal or civil proceedings against the person.

As a practical matter, only a “very small percentage” of the country’s estimated 12 million illegal aliens are included in the federal database that documents criminal and civil-immigration violations, said Bill Reid of the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

However, the new county policy is not toothless. People cited for routine traffic violations could be arrested rather than just receive a ticket if police can find their names in the database. But under no circumstances can an officer make an arrest solely on immigration violations.

In addition to the training for all of the officers, about a half-dozen will receive special federal training to enforce all aspects of immigration law and will form a new “criminal alien unit.”

While those officers will technically have the ability to make immigration arrests, Chief Deane said he will focus their activity on serious crimes, including false identifications and gang investigations.

The new policy directs police to inquire about the immigration status of all persons lawfully detained for a violation of state or local law, provided the officer has probable cause to suspect a violation of immigration law. Deputy County Attorney Angela Horan said race or ethnic status cannot be a factor in determining probable cause. But a person’s inability to speak English, lack of ID or unusual nervousness could be.

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