Thursday, June 22, 2006

Local authorities say they can’t stop a van full of illegal aliens that’s on its way from Ohio to Manassas, Va., because they don’t have the authority to detain them.

“We run into that situation daily,” Manassas police Sgt. Tim Neumann said. “There’s so many of them out there.”

A sheriff’s deputy in Belmont County, Ohio, detained the aliens for about two hours early Tuesday after stopping the van on Interstate 470 for a traffic violation.

A passenger in the van told deputies that they were illegal aliens and heading to Manassas to find work.

The deputies released the group after federal immigration authorities said via telephone they could not interview the aliens.

Officials with the Manassas Police Department and the Prince William County Sheriff’s Department said they can’t arrest the illegals even if they spot the van in their jurisdictions.

Local police in Virginia don’t have the authority to make arrests solely on the basis of a person’s immigration status.

“They have to be doing something else that we would arrest them for anyway,” Sgt. Neumann said. “We have no state statute that will allow us to take action and arrest them.”

Illegal aliens arrested for minor offenses are not reported to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), officials said.

“Generally speaking, from what I’ve seen, they just pass through our legal system like anybody else would,” said Prince William County Chief Deputy John H. Collier.

ICE usually isn’t notified that an illegal alien has been arrested unless the suspect is accused of a felony, Sgt. Neumann said.

The inability of local police to arrest illegal aliens has been a topic of heated discussion recently in Virginia’s Republican-controlled General Assembly.

Delegate David B. Albo, Fairfax County Republican, said local police should have the authority to arrest illegal aliens.

But he said there first needs to be a method of determining if someone is an illegal alien.

“There’s no master list of everybody who’s illegal,” Mr. Albo said. “You don’t require citizens to walk around with their birth certificates.”

Mr. Albo said he is trying to write a bill that would give local police the authority to arrest illegal aliens if the government can establish a way to ascertain whether someone is here illegally.

“The problem is I am not going to pass a law that requires citizens to walk around with papers,” he said.

In the latest case, the suspected illegals were released in Ohio when an ICE agent was told it was logistically impossible to conduct interviews face to face or over the phone, according to a statement released by ICE yesterday.

ICE agents interview detainees to determine their immigration status.

Immigration officials said it would have taken agents at least three hours to get to the site in eastern Ohio where the aliens were being detained. They also said it would take three more hours to get enough agents to process the aliens.

ICE officials said they were concerned that potentially holding a U.S. citizen or legal permanent resident for several hours solely on immigration suspicions could be a constitutional violation of civil rights.

They also said the Belmont County Sheriff’s Department told ICE that it didn’t have any criminal charges against the aliens.

Despite having 5,600 special agents nationwide, ICE can’t aggressively pursue every case, officials said.

“It is impossible for ICE to dispatch agents to respond in person to each and every inquiry regarding the legal status of an alien received from law enforcement, and to then initiate the process to place that individual in immigration proceedings,” ICE officials said in the statement.

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