Officials with the American Civil Liberties Union called on Gov. Terry McAuliffe last Wednesday to veto Republican-backed legislation banning local governments in Virginia from designating themselves as sanctuaries for undocumented immigrants. They also said they plan to fight federal and state policies that they believe violate immigrants’ rights.
At a news conference, representatives of the ACLU of Virginia and other civil rights organizations criticized anti-immigrant measures passed by the General Assembly. They also condemned the recent spike in deportation raids on immigrant communities in Virginia by federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, as well as President Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning immigrants from seven mostly Muslim countries.
“We’re here this morning to talk about actions to be taken at the state level that must be understood in this larger context,” said Claire Gastañaga, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia.
Gastañaga began the news conference by discussing bills that her group has asked McAuliffe to veto. They include HB 2000, which the Republican-controlled Senate passed on a party-line vote Wednesday afternoon.
The bill, sponsored by Del. Charles R. Poindexter (R-Franklin County) would ban any local government in the state from declaring itself as a sanctuary for undocumented immigrants, meaning that local officials promise not to cooperate with ICE in detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants.
Senate Democrats have also spoken out against the bill, saying it undermines trust-building efforts between communities and local police.
“Whether it is intentional or not, this is a messaging bill sending a message to immigrants, whether they are here legally or not, that they are not welcome,” said Sen. Jennifer McClellen (D-Richmond). “American citizens are being swept up in ICE raids along with undocumented immigrants. We are better than this as a commonwealth.”
Republicans have supported legislation to crack down on sanctuary cities.
Ed Gillespie, who is seeking the GOP nomination for governor, issued a statement in support of Poindexter’s bill. He called the ban on sanctuary cities a common-sense approach to immigration policy.
“Local governments should not be able to ignore federal immigration laws,” Gillespie said. “As governor, I would support and sign Delegate Poindexter’s HB 2000 because it is a reasonable measure to keep Virginians safe and enforce the law.”
The ACLU also urged McAuliffe to veto:
- HB 2002, also sponsored by Poindexter. It would require refugee resettlement agencies in Virginia to file annual reports containing personal details about the refugees, including their age, gender, country of origin and where they were resettled.
- HB 1468, which would allow local sheriffs and jail officials to hold undocumented immigrants for ICE for an additional 48 hours after they are set to be released. Sponsored by Del. Robert G. Marshall, R-Manassas, the measure was passed by the General Assembly after a mostly party-line vote in the House of Delegates.
“Supporters of bills such as these that target immigrants point to instances in other parts of the country in which undocumented immigrants were released from custody by local law enforcement and went on to commit crimes in the community,” Gastañaga wrote in a letter to McAuliffe.
Gastañaga’s letter also asked the governor to agree not to sign a 278(g) agreement, which would volunteer state police in apprehending and deporting undocumented immigrants. She said the state’s immigration laws already mandate jails and prisons to check the immigration status of everyone taken into custody.
Two days ago, McAuliffe responded to Gastañaga’s letter and agreed that the use of 287(g) agreements would negatively impact public safety and health.
“I have seen no evidence that entering into 278(g) agreements will enhance Virginia’s public safety,” McAuliffe wrote. “I will not endorse the use of these agreements in the absence of any evidence that they will make our communities safer.”
Several speakers from human rights organizations were present at the news conference, including Tram Nguyen, co-executive director of New Virginia Majority. According to Nguyen, the three bills that the ACLU wants McAuliffe to veto are merely “message bills” that will encourage immigrant families to “move further into the shadows.”
“They have no clear definition of a sanctuary city, and there are no sanctuary cities in the commonwealth,” Nguyen said. “These bills just incite fear and a sense of unwelcomeness in the immigrant communities.”
Michelle LaRue, Virginia director of CASA, an advocacy organization for low-income immigrant communities, also spoke. LaRue, herself a refugee from Guatemala after escaping the country’s civil war, said the legislation would make undocumented immigrants more afraid than they already are to report crimes, either as victims or as witnesses.
“These bills are affecting safety at large,” LaRue said. “Parents are having their kids, even kindergarteners, walk to the bus stops themselves in fear of not going outside, or having the children run errands for them … Many times, it’s in neighborhoods where it’s not safe to do so.”
McAuliffe has promised to veto any Republican-backed anti-sanctuary legislation. The governor’s spokesman, Brian Coy, told The Associated Press earlier this month that McAuliffe would veto any measure forcing localities to enforce federal immigration laws. Coy said the governor views the bills as “attempts to divide and demonize people.”
“Throughout my administration, I have advocated to make Virginia a more welcoming and diverse home for all of its residents,” McAuliffe wrote in his letter to Gastañaga. “My administration has advanced this goal without jeopardizing the safety of our citizens.”
Maura Mazurowski and Rodrigo Arriaza
News Editor and Contributing Writer