Due to its growing immigrant population and local responses to demographic changes, Northern Virginia has become a hot spot in the national immigration debate.  A growing participation in the Secure Communities Program suggests that Virginia isn’t going to cool down until immigration enforcement is back in the federal government’s hands.

While Prince William County is known nationwide for its attempts to crack down on undocumented immigration — Fairfax County, on the other hand, has always been associated with a welcoming attitude toward its immigrant population.

Prince William County made headlines when it entered into a 287(g) Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) with ICE that directs police to check the immigration status of all persons after they are arrested for a violation of a state or county law — an action perceived by many as a strong measure aimed at relieving the community of unwelcome immigrants.

This week, Fairfax County announced that it will be participating in the federal government’s controversial Secure Communities Program.  The fingerprints of all arrestees will be checked against the FBI’s criminal databases as well as immigration databases.  If there is an immigration “hit,” ICE will be able to evaluate the case, determine the individual’s immigration status, and decide whether to put a hold on the person and begin deportation proceedings.  According to ICE, approximately 50 local jails are now participating in the Secure Communities “pilot program.”  These localities include liberal-leaning areas such as Chapel Hill, NC; Asheville, NC; and Suffolk Co., MA – some of which have expressly repudiated the 287(g) program.  On its surface, Secure Communities appears benign, but there are many outstanding questions and concerns with the program.

Unlike 287(g), Secure Communities does not require a Memorandum of Agreement with local police, and does not deputize local police to enforce immigration laws.  ICE claims that the program will target the most dangerous criminals, but we have seen that other enforcement programs that claim to target threats to the community are, in reality, detaining and deporting large numbers of undocumented immigrants with no criminal records.  Will Secure Communities be used to weed out “unwelcome” immigrants just as 287(g) has?  The question of racial and ethnic profiling also comes into play.  Will police make pretextual traffic stops, for example, to make arrests and get people who look like immigrants into detention so they can be picked up by ICE?

Just like 287(g), Secure Communities raises questions about local police’s  ability to build strong, trusting relationships with their communities.  Fairfax did not enter into a 287(g) MOU, fearing that it would erode the relationship between the police and the immigrant community. They seemed to recognize that if a police agency cannot assure its immigrant community that there will be no immigration consequences to providing information or cooperating with police, immigrants will be less likely to come forward to report crimes, making the police’s job more difficult.  But will participation in Secure Communities brand Fairfax as cooperating with ICE?  Will local residents fear reporting crimes?

There are many unanswered questions about the Secure Communities Program and the 287(g) program.  Secretary of DHS Napolitano is looking into the management and implementation of these programs and we anxiously await her new vision.  Fairfax County should also be asking these questions as it moves into this new relationship with immigration enforcement.

It is notable that through Secure Communities, ICE appears to be infiltrating new areas such as Fairfax.  The community will have to monitor closely the impact that this new program has on the county’s residents.