Population of Detained Immigrants in Virginia Increases Dramatically in the Wake of Secure Communities

by Kathryn M. Doan, Esq.

The number of immigrants detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in Virginia jails has nearly doubled in the last year.  In 2010, the average daily population of immigrant men and women detained in Virginia hovered between 600 and 700.  As of June 2011, the detainee population stands at over 1000.

Currently, the facility with the largest number of immigrant detainees is ICA-Farmville, in Farmville, Virginia which as of the first week in June was holding over 500 immigrant men and women.  ICA-Farmville is a private, for profit detention center built specifically to hold ICE detainees. The other two facilities currently holding immigration detainees in Virginia are Hampton Roads Regional Jail in Portsmouth, Virginia and Rappahannock Regional Jail in Stafford, Virginia both of which are owned and operated by local governments and house both criminal detainees and immigration detainees.

Two ICE programs appear to be the driving force behind these skyrocketing numbers.   The first,  Secure Communities, has garnered a significant amount of publicity in recent months.  The second, Operation Cross Check, is less well known.

As of June 2010, the state of Virginia has required that all local jurisdictions participate in the Secure Communities program, even localities such as Arlington County, which would prefer to opt out of the program.  Under the Secure Communities program, any fingerprints that are taken by local law enforcement and sent to the FBI are automatically forwarded by the FBI to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to be run through their immigration database.  If there is a “hit” on the prints, i.e. the individual has a prior deportation order or some other contact with DHS that calls their immigration status into question, the person will be taken into immigration custody at the conclusion of the criminal proceedings.  Even if no criminal charges are filed or the charges are ultimately dropped, the person will still be turned over to ICE.

In theory, if there is no “hit” on the prints, i.e. no record of the individual in the DHS database, the individual should be let go.  However, in practice, Virginia's participation in Secure Communities has opened the door for law enforcement officials to ask questions about an individual’s immigration status even if that individual has never had a previous encounter with immigration enforcement.  Thus, immigrants pulled over for a minor traffic stop in VA in which no arrest is made very often find themselves confronted by a police officer demanding information about their immigration status.

Operation Cross Check is a second ICE initiative that is leading to an increasing number of immigrants being detained in the state of Virginia.   Nationwide, 50 percent of immigrants in detention have no criminal record and of those that do many involve only low level, non-violent offenses.  In a growing number of cases, those offenses are years, and sometime decades old.  As part of Operation Cross Check, ICE appears to be devoting an increasing amount of resources, at least in Virginia, to combing through old criminal records to identify non-citizens who may be deportable regardless of whether these individuals pose any danger to the community.

CAIR Coalition recently spoke with an individual in detention who was picked up pursuant to a minor 1987 drug charge.  This individual, a legal permanent resident, had not been in trouble with the law since and was looking forward to applying for US citizenship.  In another recent case, CAIR Coalition spoke with a single mother of two children who had been picked up at her place of employment nearly three years after her attorney assured her that pleading guilty to a minor criminal offense would not endanger her status as a legal permanent residence.

Unfortunately, absent any movement on the federal level to provide a pathway to citizenship for the hard-working immigrants who are part of the fabric of our community, as well as to re-focus ICE’s enforcement efforts on those who truly are a danger to the community, CAIR Coalition anticipates that the number of detained immigrants in Virginia will only continue to grow, causing untold hardship for our immigrant neighbors and their children.


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