When the states top lawyer offers his legal opinion on a hot-button issue, its sure to be an attention-grabber. Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinellis recent advisory opinion on the role of local law enforcement officials in immigration matters was no different.
Prompted by Prince William County Del. Robert Marshall, Cuccinelli wrote on July 30 that, in his opinion, Virginia law enforcement officers in a vein similar to the Arizona law passed earlier this year may inquire into the immigration status of individuals they have either stopped or arrested.
While uplifting for proponents of more active immigration-control measures, Cuccinellis opinion also sent ripples of fear throughout certain corners of Alexandria, where the immigrant community makes up about a quarter of the population, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
The background level of fear in the community is at an all-time high, said Simon Moshenberg, a lawyer specializing in civil rights issues with local firm Victor M. Glasberg and Associates.
According to Moshenberg, the weight of the statement from the attorney generals office especially since the news that came out of Arizona has been too easily construed to carry the abiding force of law.
In Alexandria, billed as a sanctuary city because of its standing policy on immigration issues, Chief of Police Earl Cook acknowledged Cuccinellis opinion, but, without actual changes to existing laws, said nothing would change.
We respect the attorney generals opinion, however, state and local laws have not been changed, Cook said in a written statement last week. Alexandria residents and those who work or visit our city can be assured that our police departments actions and policies remain unchanged.
Those policies date most recently to a 2007 City Council vote stating, the city and its various agencies will neither make inquiries about nor report on the citizenship of those who seek the protection of its laws or the use of its services.
Within the citys police ranks, Cook said, Our current policy is that we do not ask about immigration status unless it is relevant to the situation or would assist us in solving a crime.
If an arrest is made, then that individuals immigration status is verified as part of the booking procedures at the adult detention center through the Alexandria Sheriffs Office. If that person is found to be illegal, then their information is referred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Cooks response would likely please the American Civil Liberties Union, which weighed in on the issue several days after Cuccinelli offered his opinion.
The ACLU sent a letter to police chiefs around the state that advised them to ignore the attorney general on the matter because the opinion is legally faulty and would lead to adverse public safety consequences.
Still, Moshenberg said he harbors fears despite the standing orders for Alexandria police.
He is concerned that Cuccinellis advice to Prince William County, where headlines were made two years ago for an attempt to curb the rising number of immigrants, could sow dissension within the ranks of police agencies in places like Alexandria where internal policy prohibits the very inquiries that Cuccinelli said are permissible.
I fear that what Cuccinelli is trying to do is basically empower individual officers who themselves hold anti-immigrant sentiments of which there are inevitably some in any department to empower them to violate their orders, Moshenberg said.
To empower police officers to buck the command, to buck their brass, is dangerous, he added.
Three days after Cuccinellis opinion went public, Tenants and Workers United, the community activist group based in Arlandria-Chirilagua, held a press conference to clear up misconceptions and also establish their opposition to what they saw as a clearly anti-immigrant political maneuver.
Particularly, for the immigrant community, we wanted to calm peoples fears if they had confused the opinion with actual laws and practices, said Jon Liss, the advocacy groups executive director. They thought there had already been a change in practice and there hadnt.
Liss said TWU is now moving to educate our local political leaders to do the maximum they can to ensure that Alexandria continues to be a welcoming community.