The Virginia State Police have backed off a plan that would have allowed some officers to make immigration arrests, a prospect that had been fiercely opposed by immigrant rights advocates.
The state police chief, Col. Steve Flaherty, said last week that his department has decided against proceeding with an agreement with federal authorities that would have made Virginia the third state in the nation to adopt such a practice.
“We’re not moving forward with it at this particular point in time,” he said in an interview.
The idea of involving police in immigration enforcement has attracted growing interest since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, which were carried out by 19 foreigners, three of them in the country illegally. Florida and Alabama have signed agreements with the Department of Homeland Security under which dozens of their police officers have been authorized to make immigration arrests, typically a federal responsibility.
“We have municipalities and states approach us all the time and inquire about it,” said Manny Van Pelt, a spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which is part of Homeland Security.
But several localities that expressed interest in the idea have ultimately abandoned it because of a lack of resources or opposition from immigrant groups worried about ethnic profiling. Even police have been split over whether it makes sense.
Immigrant advocacy groups in Virginia expressed alarm about the potential for misuse of the new law and pressed state police not to seek further immigration authority.
“A number of the police we met with realized if they want immigrants to report crimes and be witnesses, they can’t be in fear of being arrested,” said Deborah Sanders, executive director of the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition.
Flaherty, the state police chief, said he was sensitive to the immigrant groups’ concerns. But putting on hold the federal agreement, which would have given the extra authority to at least two dozen of his officers, was “more of a practical decision,” he said. He said authorities determined that the new Virginia law covered the kinds of immigrants that state police were worried about—such as drug traffickers or gang members.
“We were really talking about being able to deal with the worst of the worst. That’s the way HB 570 was framed,” Flaherty said, referring to the state law by its legislative number.
However, nearly a year after it took effect, the state law appears to have been used rarely, if at all. Officials with nine police and sheriff’s departments in Northern Virginia, home to the majority of the state’s immigrants, said in interviews that they were not aware of a single arrest made using the additional authority.