Driving through Virginia, one might notice small green and white signs on the side of the road, usually near small creeks or rivers. They typically say, “Leaving X - Entering Y.” Most people rarely give these little signs much thought. For some Virginians, there are two counties where these modest signs foretell serious trouble ahead.  

In Prince William and Culpeper counties, Hispanic Virginians are at a much higher risk of being profiled and targeted by police. Both counties have active arrangements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). These contracts, known as 287(g) agreements, permit local sheriff’s deputies to perform the duties of immigration officers. These newly deputized officers can conduct interviews to determine a person’s immigration status, access federal databases, and issue detainers, which are “requests” that a local jail hold a person for 48 hours past their release date, so that ICE can take them into custody.  

Law enforcement and corrections agencies across the country have signed these agreements as far back as the late 1990s to deport undocumented arrestees from local jails. In 2006, the sheriff of Charlotte, North Carolina, started screening members of the public for immigration violations. For the next six years, immigrant communities were under the scope of local law enforcement and ICE task forces working together. In late 2012, ICE decided to focus on the jail model we see today.  

Both counties’ agreements pose threats to communities of color in several ways. By incentivizing officers to make arrests when they could have issued a summons, they can dramatically increase the rate of profiling. An investigation by the Department of Justice identified a pattern of constitutional violations committed by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office in Arizona, including racial profiling of Latinos, after it entered into a 287(g) agreement. Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio routinely conducted “sweeps” in Latino neighborhoods, where Latino drivers were up to nine times more likely to be stopped than non-Latino drivers.

Immigrants aren’t the only people impacted by these agreements. These programs are expensive. While ICE covers the travel costs of training officers, state and local governments bear the burden of the other expenses, including an officer’s salary and benefits. A study by the Brookings Institute found that Prince William County had to raise property taxes and divert funds from reserves to start its 287(g) program in 2009.

In addition, these agreements actually make our communities less safe. Knowing that local police will automatically check one’s immigration status deters victims or witnesses of crimes from cooperating with local police out of fear of being deported, even if their presence in the U.S. is documented.

Lastly, these agreements violate Virginia’s constitution. The Supreme Court of Virginia adopted the “Dillon Rule,” which limits the powers of local governments to those directly given to them by the General Assembly. The power of sheriffs or local governments to enter into these contracts with ICE isn’t written anywhere in the Virginia Code or Constitution.

Despite this, in Prince William, with no legitimate authority, the county Board of Supervisors voted in 2007 to order the Prince William Police Department to sign a 287(g) contract with ICE, over objections of the local police chief.  

Similarly, in the 2017 lead up to Culpeper County signing its 287(g) agreement, Sheriff Scott Jenkins said he was “the only person in the Commonwealth who can sign this agreement with ICE." He treated his meetings with the county board of supervisors, where ICE agents referred to undocumented people as “bodies,” as a courtesy. It was clear he would sign the contract whether board members objected or not. The ACLU of Virginia has now sued Sheriff Jenkins and the Culpeper board of supervisors to undo this agreement.

There is no basic problem with a country enforcing its immigration laws or deporting residents who pose a real threat to public safety. When a locality enters into a contract it has no authority to sign, over-extends its sheriff’s authority, wastes taxpayer money, facilitates racial profiling, and is rooted in racism, however, serious issues start to arise. Virginians should remember the sheriffs who operate local detention centers are elected constitutional officers and use political pressure to affect the change our communities deserve.

The ACLU of Virginia will continue to oppose these racist, illegal agreements through advocacy and litigation, with the support of our members. We also support, and urge our members and allies to support the work of our partners at the Legal Aid Justice Center, who provide invaluable counsel and services to communities and individuals impacted by immigration enforcement run amok. We hope that soon, along with other reforms, immigration enforcement will be in the hands of duly sworn officers rather than paper tigers.

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