Monday, April 26, 2004

Virginia lawmakers and the state attorney general yesterday expressed dismay that Arlington County plans to ignore a new law aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants in the fight against gangs and terrorists.

Delegate Robert G. Marshall suggested cutting state funding to Arlington’s police force or even shutting off the county’s water if local officials opt not to implement the law.

“If they are going to harbor illegal aliens, then they should be penalized,” said Mr. Marshall, Prince William Republican. “Is this a political statement in defiance of the General Assembly? … Well, we can fight back — turn off their water.”

A spokesman for Attorney General Jerry W. Kilgore said Arlington would fail its residents by disregarding the enhanced police powers.

“We suspect that all citizens of Virginia, in Arlington and elsewhere, would want their law-enforcement agencies to take advantage of every tool available to them,” said Kilgore spokesman Timothy M. Murtaugh. “In light of the growing gang problem, particularly in Northern Virginia, it would be a good idea to do everything you can to fight [illegal immigration].”

Mr. Kilgore, a Republican, proposed the law this year as part of his package of antigang legislation.

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

The Washington Times first reported yesterday that Arlington County is the only jurisdiction in the Northern Virginia suburbs that plans to ignore the new police power. Instead, Arlington police will follow existing department policy that forbids immigration-related investigations and discourages officers from checking a suspect’s immigration status.

Arlington also 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.

“These people could possibly catch a terrorist, and they want to make a political statement,” Mr. Marshall said. “Their mandate is to protect the public. … If they don’t want to do the job, then we shouldn’t give them the [law-enforcement] money.”

Virginia’s homeland security chief, John H. Hager, said he hopes Arlington would employ the new police power after its effectiveness has been demonstrated in other jurisdictions.

“I think we are going in the right direction,” Mr. Hager said. “When these persons are committing conventional crime or have a potential to be terrorist, we should have a role in prevention and that is becoming a large part of homeland security.”

Arlington County Board Chairman Barbara Favola was not available for comment yesterday.

In response to earlier reports about the county’s rent subsidies, Miss Favola said enforcing immigration law is the responsibility of the federal government.

“It’s not my job,” said Miss Favola, a Democrat.

J. Walter Tejada, one of Miss Favola’s fellow board members, said he supported the police department’s decision not to enforce the law, calling it “ill-conceived,” and a measure that will lead to racial profiling.

“We are all for tightening security and keeping terrorists out,” said Mr. Tejada, a Democrat. But laws like the Virginia legislation would mean “millions of hard-working immigrants who support the service industry will be targeted based on their looks,” he said. “The last I heard, that is against the law.”

Delegate David B. Albo, a Springfield Republican who sponsored the legislation, said Arlington’s policy defies explanation.

“So if they pull a person over whom they know was convicted of a felony, [has been] deported and is back in the country … they are just going to say, ‘This is a federal problem,’ and let him go?” Mr. Albo said.

“The whole purpose of the bill was to allow local police to detain these people so the federal authorities could get them.”

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 35,269, and now accounts for 18 percent of the county’s total population of 189,453.

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

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