Coalition fights racial profiling in Virginia

A coalition of Latino and allied organizations is mounting a last ditch effort to stop Virginia and the federal Department of Homeland Security from setting up a program which could seriously increase racial profiling against Latinos.

The program, called “287 g”, trains and then deputizes state, county and local police to carry out certain tasks normally related to immigration enforcement. It allows police to question people they stop about their immigration status, and to hand them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (I.C.E., aka “La Migra”) if it turns out that they are undocumented.

About 70 police agencies around the country participate in 287 g, each through a “Memorandum of Agreement”. Up to now, Homeland Security had seemed reluctant to include Virginia state police in the agreement because of a lack of guarantees against abuses that might lead to racial profiling of Latinos and others.

But on August 10, Virginia’s right-wing Republican Governor Bob McDonnell send a letter to Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking her to accept the Virginia state police application. McDonnell’s request was backed up by a letter from three Virginia Congressmen, Republicans Frank Wolf (10th CD) and Robert Wittman (1st CD) and Democrat Gerry Connolly (11th CD).

There is a fair amount of new Latino immigration in the three Congressional Districts represented by these three Congressmen, and in each district there has been some controversy stirred up by anti-immigrant organizations. In Wolf’s district there has been a long running argument in the town of Herndon about whether or not to set up a day laborer center. All three districts abut on or include parts of Prince William County, which, with its major city of Manassas, over the past several years has been a hotbed of anti-immigrant agitation aimed at newcomers from El Salvador, Guatemala and other Latin American countries.

In 2007, spurred by anti-immigrant agitators and national anti-immigrant organizations, Prince William County passed an ordinance permitting police to question people they stop about their immigration status, and to detain them and hand them over to I.C.E. if answers were not satisfactory. This led to protests by Latinos and others. In both Herndon and Prince William, there are electoral dimensions to, with right-wing candidates for local office taking a “tough on immigrants” stance.

The big context is that Virginia, once a bastion of ultra-right politics, has been steadily moving leftward for some years. In 2008, Virginia went for Obama and also elected three new Democratic members of the House of Representatives, but in state elections in 2009, moderate Democratic Governor Tim Kaine (very popular, but forbidden constitutionally from running for reelection) was replaced by right-wing Republican McDonnell, and ultra-rightist Ken Cuccinelli was elected Attorney General.

Fearing that the negative dynamics of Herndon and Prince William might now go statewide, VA-SCOPE, the Virginia Alliance for Sensible Community Policing Alternatives, appealed to Governor McDonnell to withdraw his application for a 287 g Memorandum of Agreement for the state police, but McDonnell turned them down on August 30.

The Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations ( also wrote a letter, dated August 25, to Secretary Napolitano, asking her to reject Virginia’s application for 287 g Memorandum of Agreement. Signatories include the ACLU of Virginia, the American Jewish Committee Washington Regional Office, the Capital Area Immigrants’ Rights Coalition, CASA of Maryland, the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia, the Hispanic National Bar Association, LULAC Council 4609, Virginia Organizing and many others.

The Virginia Coalition’s letter points out that all over the country, 287 g programs are already controversial, but that they would potentially constitute a special problem in Virginia because “the Commonwealth of Virginia is one of the states that does not require the state police to collect demographic data at traffic stops”. In other words, there is no mechanism in place to even know whether officers are using the leeway provided by the 287 g program to stop more Latino or foreign looking drivers, or to ask about immigration status when there is no probable cause for thinking that a crime might have been committed, other than the person’s appearance or accent.

Getting to the crux of the matter, the letter emphasizes that “enforcement only approaches have not been effective in fixing our broken immigration system”.

At writing, there has been no response from Secretary Napolitano.



Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.