Police Enforcement of Immigration Laws Raises Worry
Foreigners Without Documents Say They May Leave Out of Fear
By Bill Turque and Karin Brulliard
Sunday, October 1, 2006; Page C07
At the Bestway Supermarket on Elden Street, where shoppers browse to
merengue music and signs touting the specials are in Spanish and
English, Latino customers say they don't know much about Herndon's
new mayor or Town Council.
But they do say the town's Hispanic community was buzzing last week
with the news that those in charge, whoever they are, want police to
become la migra, federal immigration agents.
"Everyone is afraid," said Byron Flores, 26, who has lived in
Herndon since immigrating illegally from Honduras three years ago.
The number of illegal immigrants reporting crime is likely to
plummet, he said, for fear that the police will ask for their papers.
Many people are thinking about moving away, he said, including him.
"Maybe to Seven Corners."
Herndon's council voted last week to apply to U.S. Immigration and
Customs Enforcement for enrollment in the agency's "Section 287(g)"
program, which trains local police officers to determine whether
criminal suspects in custody are illegal immigrants. Officers
certified by the program can detain them and even begin deportation
proceedings before turning cases over to the federal agency. Seven
state and local law enforcement agencies nationwide have joined the
program. A dozen more are seeking to enroll officers.
The prospect of Herndon's entry into the program has again placed
the town near the epicenter of the national debate on immigration
policy. About a quarter of its 23,000 residents are Latino
immigrants, according to census data.
It has also rekindled tensions that emerged with the council's
decision last year to open a publicly funded day-labor center to
help immigrant workers find jobs. Supporters, including former mayor
Michael L. O'Reilly, said the federal government's failure to
control the borders gave them no choice. Opponents of the center,
which does not try to determine the immigration status of workers,
said the town was abetting illegal activity. In May, voters unseated
O'Reilly and two council members in what was viewed as frustration
over the issue.
During O'Reilly's tenure, Herndon Police Chief Toussaint E. Summers
Jr. rejected the idea of entering the 287(g) program for precisely
the reasons expressed by the Latino patrons at Bestway.
"Herndon Police Department involvement with enforcing immigration
laws could create barriers for segments of our community," he wrote
to Town Manager Stephen F. Owen in a Jan. 22, 2004, memo. "Such
action would tend to be counterproductive to our community policing
philosophy, which promotes partnerships and building trust."
But shortly after taking office, Mayor Steve J. DeBenedittis, joined
by four new council members (and two holdovers) discussed Summers's
status in a closed-door meeting.
"I was not invited," Summers said.
But the message was clear: The new council wanted a tougher stance
on crime in general and crime committed by illegal immigrants in
Bestway customer Marvin Alexander, 30, a Salvadoran in the country
illegally, said he is concerned about the changes the new council
will bring. He said Herndon police recently stopped an acquaintance
of his, also an illegal immigrant, who did not have a license.
Officers did not cite her.
"Imagine if that happened now," Alexander said.
Until the town works out an agreement with Immigration and Customs
Enforcement on the scope of the training and authority that officers
who complete the course will have, it is difficult to predict
whether 287(g) will actually help Herndon remove criminal illegal
immigrants from its streets.
A number of factors could seriously limit the program's
effectiveness, such as a lack of jail space and manpower.
Most other law enforcement agencies participating in the program are
sheriff's departments that operate large jails. Herndon relies on
Fairfax County's Adult Detention Center to house most of its
prisoners. But Fairfax Sheriff Stan G. Barry (D) said last week that
he didn't foresee his department entering 287(g). It means that
Herndon probably would have to transport undocumented suspects
elsewhere, possibly more than an hour away to Rappahannock County,
tying up officers' time.
There is also the question of just how much of a threat illegal
immigrants pose to public safety in Herndon.
Town officials say they want to use 287(g) to target the "worst of
the worst" criminal illegal immigrants. But police say
serious "Class A" crime -- murder, rape, robbery -- was down 26
percent in Herndon from 2002 to 2005.
"Herndon is not a crime-ridden community," said council member J.
Harlon Reece, who is uncertain whether he will vote to approve a
final agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Critics of DeBenedittis and the council say they are misleading
voters into believing that the town can roll back illegal
immigration. On Tuesday, the council will take up two other
proposals targeting undocumented residents. One would require the
town manager to ensure that anyone granted a business license has
legal immigration status. The other would require the town manager
to ensure that companies contracting with the town government
provide evidence that all their employees are in the country legally.
"This is a concerted effort to dupe the citizens into thinking that
they are actually going to solve the immigration problems in this
town," said former council member Carol A. Bruce, a supporter of the
day-labor center who was defeated for reelection in May.
"This isn't about immigrants," DeBenedittis said. "It's about crime
and criminal behavior. It's about reducing crime and making all of
Other supporters of 287(g) say the message is as important --
perhaps more important -- as the substance.
"The perception here is that we're in favor of illegal immigration,"
said Vice Mayor Dennis D. Husch. "We're trying to change that
perception, and this council has the gumption to do that."
The view at Bestway suggests that this is already happening. Flores
said the thought of leaving town is distressing. He is close to his
Herndon neighbors, many of whom are U.S. citizens.
But if Herndon police begin working to deport people, he said, he
may have no choice.
"If they sign something, if they make it law, I go," he said. "I do
not want to be the first person, you understand?"
Staff writer Tom Jackman contributed to this report.