Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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New Law Threatens Trust between Local Law Enforcement and Immigrants
Qué Pasa Washington,  Volume 1, Issue 2, July 2004, p. 1

Misunderstanding and confusion about a new law that goes into effect on July 1 threatens to have a negative effect on the relationship of trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies that is necessary to ensure the safety and security of all Virginians.  The new law, resulting from passage of HB570 (Albo, R-Springfield) and SB493 (Mims, R-Loudoun) during the 2004 General Assembly Session, is a narrow law that gives only very limited immigration enforcement powers to local and state police.  It should not result in any real change in the way Virginia law enforcement agencies currently operate, and the fact is that, for the overwhelming majority of Virginia’s immigrants, this law should have no real effect.

It is important for members of Virginia’s growing immigrant communities to know what this new law will and will not do. The new statute does not give a Virginia police officer the power to detain or arrest someone just because the person is undocumented.  It does not give Virginia police officers the power to conduct immigration-related workplace sweeps or to treat Virginia’s innocent, hardworking immigrants any differently than native-born Virginians.  This new law should only impact criminals who have been convicted of a felony, ordered to leave the country, AND who are not lawfully present in the United States.  Virginia law enforcement officers can detain without arrest warrants only the very small number of people who meet all three criteria under this new, very limited law.

Although the language of the new statute is limited, immigrant advocates are concerned that public or police misperception regarding the scope of the new law or inconsistent implementation by law enforcement agencies will result in biased policing and prevent immigrant communities and law enforcement from developing and preserving relationships of trust.  That is why twenty or more organizations and individuals representing the full diversity of immigrant communities in Virginia have come together in an unprecedented statewide alliance to raise awareness about this important public safety issue and to monitor the new law’s implementation. 

The new alliance, called The Virginia Alliance for Sensible Community Policing Efforts (VA-SCOPE), held a press conference on June 22nd to begin the process of educating the public regarding the narrow scope of this new law and to discuss its possible adverse effect on community policing efforts.  VA-SCOPE members believe the best way to combat gang activity, drug trafficking, and terrorism (the stated targets of this new legislation) is through building trust and strong relationships between local law enforcement and the immigrant communities of Virginia. Virginia law enforcement has invested millions of dollars in sensible community policing efforts.  VA-SCOPE wants to work with law enforcement to ensure that these dollars are not wasted.

Most police departments in Virginia appreciate the importance of community policing efforts and the need to build and maintain relationships of mutual respect with Virginia’s immigrant communities.  Governor Warner has shown leadership toward these goals by first advocating legislation in 2002 that required implementation of compulsory training standards to ensure sensitivity to and awareness of cultural diversity among Virginia law enforcement officers (HB 1053, Melvin D-Portsmouth), and then appointing an Advisory Panel on Bias-Based Policing to oversee implementation of the anti-bias legislation.  Subsequently, he appointed a task force to study crime in minority communities that heard testimony about immigration law enforcement issues at a recent hearing in Northern Virginia and is likely to address this issue in its final report.

VA-SCOPE says it will be working actively to ensure that the same level of concern for cultural diversity and against bias-based policing is reflected in steps taken to implement the new law.  One thing is clear. If law enforcement agencies do not proceed with care, misunderstanding and fear regarding the new law could have a devastating impact on community policing in immigrant communities.  This is an outcome that no one concerned about safe neighborhoods, streets and schools should want.  As Jorge Figueredo, Co-Chair of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO), said at the VA-SCOPE press conference, “With more power comes more responsibility.  Now that this law has passed, the police need to be even more careful how they use their power or they will lose the trust of the community.” (end)

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