Wednesday, April 13, 2005

Federal authorities released 11 illegal aliens who were detained during a traffic stop in Annandale because immigration officials said they did not pose a threat to the public.

“The 11 passengers were processed and released,” said Ernestine Fobbs, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. “There were children involved, so it was better that we released them.”

Authorities ordered the 11 Mexican nationals, three of whom are children, to return to immigration offices tomorrow for further processing. Ms. Fobbs said officials do not know where the illegals are in the meantime.

“It’s up to them whether they come back,” she said. “If they do not, they will be considered fugitives, and once we do encounter them again, they’ll be removed from the United States. They stand to lose a lot if they do not appear.”

The decision to release the aliens represents a larger struggle between local and federal officials on how to deal with illegal immigration, said Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican.

“It highlights the problem that immigration violation is a federal offense and a state or county officer does not have the authority to detain them for a federal offense,” Mr. Albo said. “You get your hands on them, and you have no authority to do anything.”

A Virginia law enacted last year allows local law-enforcement officials to detain illegal aliens who are suspected of a crime, have been previously convicted of a felony or have been previously deported or left the U.S. after a conviction and illegally returned. Police also can detain illegals for up to 72 hours without bail until they are taken into federal custody.

Under the state law, there is no authority for a local law-enforcement officer to arrest a person solely for being an illegal alien.

A Fairfax County police officer found the aliens in a Dodge Ram van he stopped at about 8:45 a.m. Sunday at the intersection of Braddock and Ravensworth roads, police said. The officer stopped the van for making an illegal U-turn at the intersection.

While speaking to the driver, the officer learned that the group had been riding in the van nonstop from Arizona since Thursday, police said.

Police charged the driver, Emigdio Velasquez-Sargento, with three counts of child endangerment, driving without a license and failure to obey a highway sign.

Mr. Velasquez-Sargento, 22, was being held on $8,000 bail. Ms. Fobbs said Mr. Velasquez-Sargento will be turned over to ICE officials once the Fairfax County charges are dealt with.

Officer Bud Walker, a county police spokesman, said officers who detained the Mexican nationals on Sunday called ICE officials, who confirmed the aliens’ illegal status.

“There might be suspicions, but given that we had access to an ICE official it was simply more expedient to let that person investigate their actual status,” Officer Walker said. “If we had suspected the passengers in the van were involved in illegal activity, it would be different.”

Lawmakers and immigration experts have said there are an estimated 200,000 illegal aliens in Virginia, which has an estimated population of 7.4 million.

In recent years, the Virginia legislature passed several laws that are more strict on illegal aliens.

Gov. Mark Warner, a Democrat, recently signed into law a measure that denies illegals public benefits including access to Medicaid, welfare and local health care services.

The law, which takes effect Jan. 1, requires state and local governments to verify the legal presence of those seeking nonemergency public benefits. It applies only to aliens 19 and older. Illegals of any age still will be eligible for emergency aid.

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