Press Club

Progressive Voice: Don’t Let Fear Silence Immigrants

Progressive Voice is a weekly opinion column. The views and opinions expressed in the column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of their organizations or

By Alfonso Lopez

Last week the Virginia House of Delegates passed a bill, HB 1257, to prohibit any locality in Virginia from adopting an ordinance, procedure or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.

While that may sound reasonable to some Virginians, it ignores the complicated relationship between federal, state and local law enforcement with regard to immigration and contradicts Arlington policy. It also ignores the urgent need for immigrants to feel comfortable and confident in talking to law enforcement after a crime has occurred.

When immigrant victims and witnesses fear law enforcement, crimes go unsolved and perpetrators go free. Across Virginia, service-providers working with immigrant victims — and law enforcement investigating crimes involving immigrant victims and witnesses — report the significant obstacles this fear poses to the criminal justice system’s ability to transform crimes into convictions.

Domestic violence, sexual assault and street robberies are just a few of the types of violent crimes that routinely go unreported and unsolved. This public safety crisis needs to be addressed to keep criminals from taking advantage of the fear that is running rampant in Virginia’s immigrant communities.

Current policy in Arlington prevents victims and witnesses of crimes from being asked about their immigration status when speaking with the police, unless that information is directly relevant to the crime being investigated. This policy was put into place to keep Arlington law enforcement from having to shoulder the burden of federal immigration laws.

Arlington’s policy is also particularly designed to strengthen community policing — a style of policing that establishes a familiar, on-the-ground presence for law enforcement among residents — by ensuring that residents who are concerned about their immigration status are not afraid to report criminals and assist prosecutors in investigating criminal activity.

Furthermore, consistent with an advisory opinion released in January 2015 by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, the Arlington County Sheriff’s Office is not required to hold an individual in custody past his release date based solely on a request to detain him by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

These non-mandatory requests neither impose a legal obligation nor provide the necessary legal authority to detain individuals past their release date, and must be accompanied by a court-issued warrant to be honored and avoid raising constitutional concerns.

Above all, each of these policies make our community safer by encouraging a free flow of communication between undocumented immigrants and law enforcement, and neither policy runs contrary to federal law.

HB 1257, however, could prohibit common-sense public safety policies like ours and replace them with a requirement that Arlington participate in ICE’s 287(g) program, which would effectively deputize our local police to act as enforcement for federal immigration law.

Doing so would further drive Arlington’s immigrant communities into the shadows and widen the chasm of distrust between these communities and our law enforcement officials. Last February, in a statement anticipating just this type of situation, County Manager Mark Schwartz vowed that the Arlington County Police Department would “…not use their trusted relationship with our residents as a way for ICE to take action against them.”

In the time since our County Manager made that pledge, ICE arrests of undocumented immigrants across the country — including for those accused, but not convicted, of minor crimes — have gone up by nearly 40 percent. This has had a chilling effect on the willingness of those in the immigrant communities to come forward and report crimes to the police.

In one of Arlington’s predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, reports of domestic assault plummeted more than 85 percent in the first eight months of 2017 when compared to the same period the year before. Similarly, reports of rape and sexual assault also dropped by 75 percent. This administration’s deportation policies are having a real and measurable impact on the safety of our communities and the effectiveness of our police.

There are those on the other side of the aisle who know how harmful these laws can be. When HB 1257 was initially voted on by the House of Delegates on February 13, 2017, it failed on a bipartisan 50-50 vote. Unfortunately, the lone Republican who opposed the measure moved to reconsider his vote, allowing the House of Delegates to hold a new vote and pass the bill.

We should not be pushing legislation that imposes additional burdens on local law enforcement and furthers the divide between Virginia’s immigrant communities and local police. Instead we should be encouraging community policing practices like those in Arlington to be adopted throughout Virginia.

Community-based policing has been time-tested for decades as a successful model of crime prevention and reduction. For its success to continue, we must maintain and build upon the essential relationship of trust and cooperation between the police and the residents of the communities they serve. Republican efforts to pass HB 1257 erode that trust, make our communities less safe for residents, and take us in the wrong direction.

Alfonso Lopez represents the 49th District (South Arlington and Eastern Fairfax) in the Virginia House of Delegates and serves as the Democratic Whip. He and his family are long-time residents of Arlington.

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