David Reynolds, Daily News-Record (Harrisonburg, Va.), Oct. 5, 2006
Illegal aliens may face deportation after criminal convictions, but a spokeswoman with Immigration and Customs Enforcement says the agency isn’t proactively seeking to remove otherwise law-abiding illegal aliens from the Shenandoah Valley.
“We have to prioritize our resources,” Ernestine Fobbs said. “What we focus on are those [illegal aliens] who are a threat to national security and to the public safety of our communities.”
Fobbs would not say whether illegal aliens convicted of minor offenses or with no criminal record would be deported.
“When we encounter them, we take appropriate action,” Fobbs said, not elaborating on what that meant. “Criminal cases are our higher priority.”
The clarification of ICE’s enforcement of federal immigration law comes after local law enforcement said such enforcement is up to the federal government.
On Tuesday, Commonwealth’s Attorney Marsha Garst told the Harrisonburg City Council that her office does not have the resources or authority to enforce immigration laws.
On Thursday, U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte, R-6th, said the reluctance of the federal government to enforce immigration laws has been a consistent problem throughout and Bush and Clinton administrations.
“Illegal immigration involves far more than people who just commit serious offenses,” he said. He agreed that violent offenders “should be the highest priority.” But “unfortunately, they’re the only priority,” he added.
Goodlatte, who worked to bring the local ICE office to Harrisonburg, said the office does do a good job of deporting illegal aliens convicted of violent offenses.
But the federal agency, Goodlatte says, should also punish those who violate immigration laws.
Only After Criminal Element
Fobbs said that while immigration enforcement is a federal responsibility, in most cases, ICE depends on local law enforcement to notify federal agents before deportation proceedings can begin.
Col. Don Harper, chief of the Harrisonburg Police Department, says that when officers discover suspects are illegal, they don’t call ICE unless the person is arrested and charged with a crime that makes them potentially dangerous.When illegal aliens are arrested and charged for other offenses, Harper says, city officers notify federal authorities, who may hold the suspect for deportation proceedings.
But if they encounter a suspected illegal alien while writing a traffic ticket or responding to a domestic dispute, officers don’t notify ICE, Harper says.
If a suspect is charged with assault or driving under the influence, ICE would probably be notified, Harper said.
“We’ve got enough to deal with without proactively going out and bringing in illegal people just because they’re illegal,” Harper said.
In addition to a lack of resources, Harper says the policy is in place because officers’ primary responsibility is arresting and detaining dangerous criminals.
“I realize they’re illegal,” he said. “But some of them are very hard workers and have the best interest in mind for their families and the community.”