Virginia Sweeps Out Immigrant Sex Offenders
By John Gramlich, Staff Writer
A recent law-enforcement operation in Virginia that will result in the deportation of at least 171 immigrant sex offenders - including some who came to the United States legally and have been out of prison for years - has spurred debate over whether the crackdown is fair and if other states should carry out similar sweeps.
Virginia Attorney General Bob McDonnell (R) last month announced that his office and state police had teamed up to help the federal government identify and deport the foreign-born sex offenders. Hundreds of others still are being evaluated and also could be removed from the country as a result of the state-led initiative, believed to be the first of its kind.
The sex offenders to be deported include illegal immigrants already incarcerated in Virginia prisons and jails - where they first will complete criminal sentences - as well as others who entered the country lawfully and served time here years ago. The group is made up of offenders from diverse countries, ranging from Cuba and Honduras in Latin America to Scotland and Germany in Europe .
McDonnell now is lobbying officials from other states to copy Virginia 's initiative. At an annual conference of state attorneys general last week in Washington , D.C. , he urged his counterparts from across the nation to do more to help federal authorities find and deport all immigrants convicted of sex crimes.
"People who commit crimes who are aliens, whether legal or illegal … need to go back to their home countries," McDonnell said in an interview with Stateline.org . "They have no business being in America ."
He said Virginia 's crackdown on immigrant sex offenders is part of a broader strategy on the part of his office to help the federal government deport all immigrant criminals who come into contact with the state. Targeting sex offenders, he said, was a logical first step because sex-offender registries make deportable immigrants easy for law-enforcement officials to identify.
"Sex offenders are required to register and re-register, which means you've got their most current home address and work address, unlike most other criminals who might be out on the street," McDonnell said.
But including legal immigrants in Virginia 's crackdown has angered some pro-immigrant activists, who claim the state is going too far.
Critics say deportation is an "additional penalty" on some offenders who may have green cards to live in the United States lawfully and who already have paid for their crimes. Moreover, they say, Virginia is infringing on the role of the federal government by enforcing U.S. immigration laws.
"We have to have a set policy in this country of who does what," said Nancy Lyall, legal coordinator for the Virginia-based advocacy group Mexicans Without Borders . "When you have local and state jurisdictions deciding for themselves, it creates chaos and it creates injustices because the law is being applied differently in different jurisdictions."
Virginia 's initiative, code-named "Operation Cold Play," is in keeping with federal law. The U.S. government is authorized to deport all immigrants - legal or illegal - who commit crimes of "moral turpitude" while on American soil. Though some immigration lawyers say the phrase "moral turpitude" can be vague, they agree the statute covers sex offenses and other major crimes such as assault and robbery.
McDonnell, long a critic of what he sees as federal inaction on immigration enforcement, initiated Virginia 's sweep when he asked state police in July 2007 to comb the state's sex offender registry and flag all foreign-born offenders using internal arrest records.
The state then provided a list of 527 names to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to be evaluated for possible deportation. The agency still is examining the remaining names on the list.
Virginia 's tough stand against immigrant sex offenders comes amid a dramatic spike in the number of foreign-born criminals being deported by the federal government. ICE last year targeted 164,000 immigrants for deportation because of their crimes - more than double the number in 2006 - and that total is expected to exceed 200,000 this year, according to Julie L. Myers, the agency's director.
Meanwhile, U.S. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff, who oversees ICE, has characterized state and local governments as an important partner in the enforcement of immigration laws. Asked last month whether he foresees a larger role for states in the identification and deportation of immigrant criminals, Chertoff told Stateline.org , "We do."
Many state and local law-enforcement units already partner with ICE as part of the agency's 287 (g) program , in which federal agents train local police in the enforcement of immigration laws. At least 46 police agencies in 17 states participate in the program.
Additionally, many states have agreements with ICE to share information on potentially deportable immigrants who enter state correctional facilities. Many prison and jail officials across the country, however, do not follow through on those agreements because they haven't been properly trained in immigration law, according to Jessica Vaughan of the Center for Immigration Studies , which seeks tougher immigration policies.
McDonnell has promoted Virginia 's initiative as an easy and cost-effective way for states to help ICE deport more immigrant criminals. But other attorneys general who attended last week's conference in Washington , D.C. , remained cautious of copying the operation.
"I don't envision a major role for attorneys general because it's fundamentally a federal responsibility," said Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal, a Democrat.
Colorado Attorney General John Suthers, a Republican, said the issue of immigrant criminals is "something we're all concerned about," but he said attorneys general would have to determine whether such crackdowns make sense in their own states.