The Virginia attorney general issued an opinion on Friday urging all law enforcement officers in the state to inquire about the immigration statuses of anyone stopped or arrested. The opinion, were it to become law, would essentially enact an Arizona-style anti-immigration policy. It’s the latest and loudest push by a very well established anti-immigrant political element in the state and local government.
In response to a request by state legislator Bob Marshall, who represents the notoriously anti-immigrant Prince William County, inquiring as to "whether Virginia officers have the legal authority to inquire about the legal status of persons who are stopped or arrested in a manner similar to that contemplated by the Arizona Act," Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli wrote:
Virginia law enforcement officers have the authority to make the same inquiries as those contemplated by the new Arizona law. So long as the officers have the requisite level of suspicion to believe that a violation of the law has occurred, the officers may detain and briefly question a person.
And it’s not just cops who Cuccinelli says have the power to push people into deportation. Immigrants in the state must now avoid public parks. "Nothing in Virginia or United States law," the opinion reads, "prohibits conservation officers from inquiring about criminal violations of the immigration laws and, where appropriate, making an arrest."
Cuccinelli has made regular headlines by using his office to push the boundaries of the law. He has sued the federal government over health insurance reform and has tried to unilaterally remove sexual orientation from the anti-bias code of the state university.
The entire state of Virginia already participates in the Secure Communities program, which requires immigration status checks of anyone booked into jail. The attorney general’s opinion, which is not a binding law but does inform the behavior of the state’s law enforcement, attempts to extend this onto the streets.
Here’s how the "opinion" could become binding law: Gov. Bob McDonnell would need to issue an executive order, or the legislature would have to pass legislation itself — and that’s just what some old time immigrant bashers in the state hope to do.
The anti-immigrant movement in Virginia has its home base in Prince William Country. It’s a place where in 2007, county supervisors passed an ordinance that required cops to check the immigration statuses of people suspected of being undocumented immigrants. It was Arizona before Arizona.
The ordinance was later scaled back so that simple suspicion no longer justified police action. But now Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors who spearheaded the 2007 effort, is looking for the support of a state legislator to introduce a statewide version. He’s calling it "The Rule of Law Act."
State Delegate Bob Marshall, who’s led the charge on a laundry list of anti-immigrant efforts over the last decade and wrote the original inquiry to the attorney general, hasn’t committed to formally introducing an SB 1070 copycat law. But not out of a sudden change of heart; he says Stewart just hasn’t approached him.
But, Marshall offers, "if it is within the confines of the ground rules," which he defines as the constitutions of the United States and of Virginia, "then, yes, I’d introduce it."
Marshall’s rationale for hard-line tactics wreaks of right-wing conspiracy theorizing. "Domestic and foreign drug cartels are ferrying in illegal aliens from Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan," he says. "These people pose a threat to every community in the U.S."
If he or another Virginia legislator does introduce a bill, Virginia will become the seventh state to introduce SB 1070 copycat bills, and the 22nd to at least have it on its radar. Like many, Marshall doesn’t think Obama’s doing enough to secure the border — even though the president’s already authorized 1,200 national guard troops to the region and is on pace to deport a record number of people this year.
Colorlines has been keeping track of the copycat bills emerging around the country. It’s an effort that, as I’ve written before, has grown from a concerted political organizing strategy on the part of right-wing immigration restrictionist groups.
But Virginia’s efforts aren’t happening without a fight.
"We definitely are watching the state as a place that could replicate Arizona, " said Jeff Winder, an organizer with the Wayside Center in Virginia, which is working with a group of community organizations to build momentum against such a law.
While in years past, immigration advocates in Virginia have had some success pushing back punitive immigration bills in the state legislature, Winder says, "right now we’re finding the more moderate swing voters really silent and very uncomfortable talking about immigration. Virginia," he adds, "could be next."