Commentary

Fairfax County is first in Virginia to end voluntary cooperation with ICE: It shouldn’t be the last 

March 19, 2021 12:01 am

A rally against deportations by the U.S. Immigrations and Customs Enforcement agency in 2019 in Richmond. (VCU Capital News Service)

By Diane Burkley Alejandro and Luis Aguilar 

In a ground-breaking measure, the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors last week unveiled its “trust policy” to prohibit voluntary cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. The policy forbids county employees, including police, from asking about or disclosing a person’s immigration status unless required by law, a judicial warrant or court order. It also limits the collection and sharing of other personal information with those outside of local government. 

The trust policy responds to the concerns of local immigrants, as shown in a recent CASA survey, that any contact with the county government can lead to their deportation because of inter-governmental cooperation. This absence of trust has been painfully apparent during the COVID-19 pandemic, with many immigrant residents afraid to apply for assistance or seek county services despite the disproportionate impact it has had on their community. 

Lack of trust is also a threat to public safety because it impedes cooperation with local law enforcement. As one ACLU People Power Fairfax member testified, “my husband and I were at a Latino restaurant when we heard a commotion outside. We saw a crowd surrounding a man face down in a pool of blood. When the sound of a police siren was heard, the crowd quickly disappeared. Who wants to risk deportation to be a witness?” 

Board Chair Jeff McKay promised that the trust policy “marks a new chapter in Fairfax County” and that the “days of fear in Fairfax County are over. We will do everything we can to help people, [to] protect them from association with ICE but, more importantly, help them get the services and the access to their county government they need. It’s also important that people in our community feel comfortable coming forward when they’re victims of crime.”  

The policy prohibits voluntary cooperation with ICE civil enforcement, including sharing citizenship and immigration status information by all county agencies. It also restricts the collection or sharing of other types of personal information to the minimum “required to fulfill the mission or obligations of the Fairfax department.” Agencies must develop written directives and review forms to ensure these standards are met. The trust policy also expands the type of identification documents that can be used when a photo ID is required for government services, including an ID issued by a pre-approved non-profit organization. 

The expanded privacy protection benefits all Fairfax residents, who rightfully are concerned with identity theft, release of arrest records and other intrusions into their personal lives. It is especially critical, however, for immigrants. ICE has exploited the weaknesses of federal and state privacy law to track down its “targets.” Addresses, social security numbers or their absence, date of release from jail, place of birth and national origin can be used to locate individuals it seeks to apprehend. Data-mining technologies largely run by contractors like Amazon, Lexus-Nexus and Thomson-Reuters collect such information for ICE without the restrictions placed on government agencies. 

Under this policy, cooperation with criminal law enforcement will continue. But ICE’s civil enforcement lacks the constitutional protections of criminal law; its “administrative warrants” are based on a faulty database, leading to the arrest of U.S. citizens and authorized immigrants by mistake. These arrests tear people away from their families, place them into an unjust and inhumane incarceration system, put their jobs, health and safety and lives at risk and doom many to exile in a country they fear or left so long ago they do not even know. 

The Fairfax Trust Policy could have kept families together, such as the family of Liliana Mendez. Liliana was deported to El Salvador, even after receiving a pardon for her traffic infraction. 

Maintaining and promoting trust in Fairfax is an ongoing challenge. It is not yet clear when the Sheriff’s Office and schools will be covered by the policy, although we are working toward this goal. We commend Fairfax Commonwealth’s Attorney Steve Descano for already adopting key protections for immigrants; we are working with him to expand and finalize his interim trust policy. At the end of the day, county residents interact with one local government, and for there to be trust, it is a two-way street. 

Even under a new presidential administration with promised reforms, there is no guarantee that ICE will transform its practices. The administration has deported 20 children to Haiti despite implementing new directives limiting such deportations.  

The fundamental result of the Fairfax Trust policy is not that it should create trust or calm the  concern or even fear that some of its immigrant residents may have; it is the creation of a more  just county and society that engages all of its residents through an equitable approach. 

Fairfax is the first locality in the commonwealth to end voluntary cooperation with ICE. It must not be the last. 

Diane Burkley Alejandro and Luis Aguilar co-led the years-long advocacy campaign for adoption of the Trust Policy. Alejandro is a social justice government-relations attorney and the lead advocate for the grassroots organization ACLU People Power Fairfax. Aguilar is the Virginia director of CASA, the largest immigrant justice group in the region.

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