The Virginia Anti-Sanctuary Movement

As the national conversation about immigration has reached a fever pitch in the wake of an Executive Order temporarily banning refugees and immigrants from seven countries, many activists have called upon localities to push back against the administration and declare themselves to be “sanctuary” cities.

In response to such advocacy in Virginia, Republicans in the Virginia General Assembly have put forth a bill, HB 2000, which states that, “no locality shall adopt any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.”

The bill was introduced by Delegate Charles Poindexter, who also introduced three other immigration enforcement and anti-sanctuary city laws (See HB 2001, 2002, 2004). There’s also a Senate bill SB1262 that is pending the General Assembly at the time of this writing.

I was able to attend one of the debates surrounding HB2000, which occurred in a special meeting of the Virginia Senate’s Local Government Committee on February 20th. In that meeting, I listened as Delegate Poindexter and the Republican senators defended the bill before a 7–6 vote along party lines officially approved the bill for consideration by the full Senate. What I heard deeply disturbed me.

The justification they gave for the bill (and others like it I imagine) rested primarily on the fear that localities will willfully ignore and obstruct federal immigration law, creating a safe haven for undocumented immigrants who commit crimes. In his defense of this premise, Delegate Poindexter has cited various crimes committed by undocumented immigrants in other states. He has also referenced calls to make Richmond and Charlottesville, among others, sanctuary cities.

The bill and the justifications offered by its proponents suffer from at least three fatal flaws that render it both unnecessary and a danger to public safety. First, it relies on a flawed understanding of what it means to be a sanctuary city, particularly in Virginia. Second, it suffers from the logical fallacy that the threat of deportation is what keeps undocumented immigrants from committing crimes. And finally, in the greatest irony, it provides a safe haven for perpetrators of crimes against undocumented immigrants, including those who participate in human trafficking and modern day slavery. I will try to flesh each of these points out briefly below, but much more can and has been said on each of them by the many advocates of immigrant rights.

Understanding Sanctuary Cities

There is no single definition of a “sanctuary city,” and no two cities who classify themselves as such are alike in the practical implementation of the designation. As it relates to HB2000, most sanctuary cities protect undocumented immigrants from being reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (“ICE”) for simply interacting with local government services and/or local law enforcement. That includes traffic stops and participation in legal disputes but also involves schools, hospitals, social services, and other local agencies in addition to the police.

Before proceeding it’s important to understand the broader legal context of immigration law. States and localities do not have the authority, let alone the responsibility, to enforce federal immigration law unless specifically delegated by the federal government. The default standard then for every city and county is neutrality when it comes to immigration enforcement. However, cities can choose to take on such responsibilities (see more on 287(g) agreements here). There are only a handful of such agreements in place today, and only one in VA with the Prince William Regional Detention Center.

Thus, every locality in Virginia that has not entered into a 287(g) agreement (and that would be all of them) could be viewed as a sanctuary city by certain standards. Granted, the proponents of HB2000 are arguing a different point — that they’re worried about Virginia cities going further, following the lead other cities who do not report undocumented immigrants who have been arrested or charged with a crime, typically low level offenses, such as driving without a license. But this is a patently false and unfounded threat, at least in Virginia.

That’s because Virginia is one of two states that automatically checks the immigration status of anyone (yes you, if you live in VA) arrested or charged with a crime (Va § 53.1–218). If it appears that the person arrested is in the country illegally, they will be reported to ICE, who then makes a determination as to whether the suspect should be detained as a result of their immigration status. And there are many other state laws in Va (e.g., Va. § 53.1–220.2) that obviate the need for HB2000 as a measure to protect against undocumented immigrants who commit crimes.

“We have all kinds of things on the books that make it impossible for anybody to perceive anywhere in Virginia is a sanctuary if you are a criminal and a violent criminal particularly.” Claire Guthrie-Gastanaga (ACLU, VA)

Why then do we need HB2000? Its proponents argue that it will serve as a deterrent to undocumented immigrants who might otherwise engage in criminal activity.

Deportation as a Deterrent

To say that sanctuary cities provide safe havens for undocumented criminals is to say that the freedom from the fear of deportation engenders criminality and/or that threat of deportation deters criminality. Both suffer from flawed reasoning, that it is immigration law that deters criminals, when there are already host of deterrents already in place, namely the criminal justice system itself.

I won’t belabor this point, because it’s a simple one. In a word, undocumented immigrants are deterred from committing crimes the same way that you and I are — because we don’t want to face the consequences of committing crimes. It also doesn’t follow that a criminal would be willing to break the law but for the presence of another law.

But it’s not just the logic, there also the facts— there is no correlation between immigration and crime rates, and so-called sanctuary cities do not have higher levels of crime versus non-sanctuary cities. There are many studies, but for times sake, here’s a recent study out of the University of California. (For more, Wikipedia has a good summary as well). Why then, would we need HB2000 to curb a non-existent uptick in crime?

This issue of deterrence is a critical segue into the heart of this issue, that rather than being deterred from committing crimes, HB2000 and bills like it, will deter undocumented immigrants from reporting crimes and testifying as witnesses in criminal proceedings.

Community Safety and the Most Vulnerable

While HB2000 appears on the surface to simply require localities to follow federal law (which they are already required to do), it casts a dark shadow on undocumented immigrants who are victims of crimes or who are being trafficked into the U.S. As I have argued above, this bill is not needed to reduce crime and is not needed to identify and report undocumented immigrants who do commit crimes.

The only real practical effect will be to reinforce the widespread belief among undocumented immigrants that they cannot turn to the police if they witness a crime or are themselves victims of a criminal act. This chilling effect is palpable in immigrant communities, particularly in rural Virginia where undocumented farmworkers live in slave-like conditions and human traffickers pimp women who are also living in the shadows. Yes, in Virginia. Check out the work of the Legal Aid Justice Center’s Immigration Advocacy Program to learn more (learn more about the national issue here).

HB2000 will provide the perpetrators of violence, theft, forced labor, and human trafficking with fertile ground to violate the dignity and basic human rights of undocumented immigrants with impunity. It will send the message that they are welcome and protected here.

In our cities, HB2000 will frustrate community policing efforts and provide avenues for the suppression of witness testimony, thwarting the administration of justice. When the threat of deportation silences victims and witness, criminals go free and crime, though perhaps unseen to you or me, increases.

Though it claims to promote “law and order,” HB2000 will make Virginia less safe. And not just for undocumented immigrants, but for everyone.

This article has focused on the interaction between HB2000 and the criminal justice system. But I would be remiss to point out that this bill has implications far beyond criminal matters — and will have a chilling effect in many other areas such as health care, education, and social services. As a result, undocumented women and children will suffer the most and immigrant communities will remain in cycles of poverty and abuse.

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