Monday, April 26, 2004

A new Virginia law targeting illegal aliens has been embraced as a powerful weapon to combat gangs and terrorism by local police departments, but Arlington County officials plan to ignore it.

The law, which takes effect July 1, permits local police to arrest any illegal immigrant who previously had been convicted of a felony and deported. Under current state law, police investigating a crime are not authorized to forcibly hold an illegal immigrant pending the arrival of a Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agent.

A spokesman for Arlington County Police Chief M. Douglas Scott told The Washington Times that, rather than use the new arrest powers, the force likely will follow existing department policy that forbids immigration-related investigations.

The Arlington policy also discourages officers from checking a suspect’s immigration status, despite evidence that illegal aliens are involved in the region’s crime gangs and terrorist cells.

“The chief said that he would be reviewing the law, but he does not anticipate making any changes to our policy,” spokesman Matt Martin said. “The law, as I understand it, only allows us to [make the arrest]. It does not mandate us to do it.”

The Times first reported this month that Arlington is the only jurisdiction in the Northern Virginia suburbs that does not check the immigration status of residents receiving tax-funded county rent subsidies — a breach that an ICE official said opens the door to terrorists.

In response, Arlington County Board Chairman Barbara Favola said enforcing immigration law is the responsibility of the federal government.

“It isn’t my job,” she said.

According to the police department’s policy: “The enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws is a primary responsibility of the federal government. Accordingly, the Arlington County Police Department shall not undertake immigration-related investigations and shall not routinely inquire into the immigration status of persons encountered during police operations.

“This prohibition does not preclude the department from cooperating with federal immigration officials when requested, or from notifying those officials in serious situations where a potential threat to the public is perceived,” the policy states.

However, the directive bars Arlington police from notifying federal authorities “of the whereabouts or behavior of any immigrant or foreign visitor,” except when the person is arrested for a violent felony, convicted of a felony or arrested for a terrorism-related offense.

According to statistics from the Census Bureau, Arlington County’s foreign-born population grew from 36,516 in 1990 to 52,693 in 2000, the year of the most recent population tally. During that same period, the county’s Hispanic population grew from 23,089 to 35,268. Hispanics account for more than 18 percent of the county’s total population of 189,453.

Immigration experts estimate that there are about 10 million illegal aliens in the United States and that more than 100,000 of them reside in Virginia.

Authorities have connected illegal immigrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras with crime gangs operating in Northern Virginia, and a Mexican drug syndicate with a sharp increase in methamphetamine trafficking in the Shenandoah Valley.

The new law allowing police to arrest illegal aliens on the grounds of their immigration status and criminal history was part of a package of antigang legislation proposed this year by state Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore.

Several police departments in Northern Virginia lauded the attorney general’s initiative.

Sgt. Kim D. Chinn of the Prince William County Police Department said that illegal aliens appear to be involved in gang crime in the county and that police welcomed the additional arrest power.

“We would be glad to use any tool available to law enforcement,” she said.

“It is a big deal,” said Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers. “Instead of the [illegal aliens] saying, ‘Good-bye,’ we can arrest them. It gives us a little more power.”

Manassas City Police Chief Col. John J. Skinner said his officers will “arrest on the spot” if they encounter an illegal alien subject to the new law. He said most police departments in the region have a policy for illegal immigrants similar to Arlington’s, but those policies often allowed illegal immigrants to just walk away.

“Once they said, ‘I want to go,’ then they are free to be released,” Col. Skinner said.

Police officials in Alexandria and Fairfax County said the new law still was being reviewed, but they did not express an aversion to incorporating it into their policing policy.

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