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Sunday, July 11, 2004

WVEC.com | News for Hampton Roads, Virginia | New state law has immigrants fearing police

WVEC.com | News for Hampton Roads, Virginia | Virginia News

A new Virginia law allowing local police to detain some illegal immigrants has had the unintended effect of eroding the already fragile trust between the law enforcement and immigrant communities, critics of the legislation said.

The statute has prompted some immigrants to hoard food and stay indoors, police and community leaders said. One Latina in Fairfax, a victim of domestic violence, would not go to the police for help, fearing she would be deported, an immigrant advocate said.

"This is the kind of law that makes a vulnerable community even more vulnerable," said Arlington County Supervisor Walter Tejada, who has been holding forums to educate Latinos on the law. "Immigrant communities are already reluctant to contact the police if they are victims of a crime or a witness to a crime. Now it will make the communities even more hesitant."

The law, which went into effect July 1, is a landmark of sorts in Virginia. For the first time, state and local authorities can arrest illegal immigrants without a warrant, but only if they have been convicted of a felony, already have been ordered out of the country and are suspected of committing another crime.

Primary sponsor Del. David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, said only a few people meet all three criteria.

Several police officers testified during legislative hearings that they worked to convict gang members of felonies and to have them deported, only to see them back in their neighborhoods. Now they'll have another tool to arrest them, Albo said.

Albo added that he believes a few civic leaders — not the law — are at the root of the immigrant community's fear. "There's a bunch of people from the community who are developing a hysteria that I don't understand," he said.

Although the law was intended to be limited in scope, it apparently has incited a much broader reaction of fear of the police.

When Fairfax County police recently held a Spanish-language child safety seat demonstration in Herndon, hoping it would build goodwill between the department and the area's burgeoning Latino population, no one from the immigrant community showed up.

According to Capt. Mike Vencak of the Reston District station, which planned the safety demonstration, some in the Hispanic community "thought it was a ploy" to snare the undocumented.

Many immigrants have a natural distrust of the police because they come from countries where authorities are corrupt, said Tim Freilich, managing attorney of the Virginia Justice Center, an advocacy group.

Scot Christenson, media relations coordinator for the Catholic Legal Immigration Network, said the law could lead to racial profiling and hurt police departments if it discourages immigrants from reporting crimes.

"Police groups can't solve crimes or investigate if people won't come forward, and what they are basically doing is alienating a huge chunk of the population," he said.

The number of immigrants, drawn to Virginia by an abundance of jobs in such fields as construction, is increasing rapidly in the state. Spanish-speakers are the most numerous among immigrants and composed 11 percent, or 214,000 people, of the total population of Northern Virginia in 2000, according to the U.S. Census.

Sgt. Richard Perez, a Fairfax police spokesman, said he has appeared on Spanish-language television and radio stations to explain the new law. Each time, his office has been flooded with calls as soon as he left the air. Hispanic residents, he said, "are under the impression that this law was going to be used to start deporting all illegal aliens."

Part of the problem is that it can be hard to prove one's status, said Frecia Guzman, a Salvadorian immigrant who owns a deli in Fairfax. She said many of her Salvadorian friends are in the United States with a special asylum grant known as Temporary Protected Status. But many don't have the papers to prove it and have been waiting for months to get their documents from the federal government.

Now they are afraid of venturing outside their homes, believing they will get stopped by police and asked to produce documents that prove their immigration status, she said.

"They are scared to go out to the restaurants," Guzman said. "They don't even want to go outside."

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