Detention Centers In Virginia

By Jessica M. Vaughan on September 27, 2007, September 27, 2007

The proposal released yesterday by Virginia's blue ribbon task force on Illegal Immigration and Crime, launched by the Virginia State Crime Commission, is a measured and constructive approach to what has become a fiscal and social crisis in Virginia. One key recommendation is to negotiate a deal with federal immigration officials (ICE) to construct a 1,000 bed detention center for illegal aliens who have been arrested for state crimes.

This is a win-win-win proposal. It benefits state and local law enforcement agencies by enabling them to hold for ICE those illegal aliens that they happen to arrest for state crimes. This is a significant number of criminals.

A recent study by the Crime Commission found that between six and ten percent of the Virginia jail population, more than 20,000 criminals, are believed to be illegal aliens. Nearly 40 percent of the crimes committed by illegal aliens in jail in Virginia are felonies. Another 46 percent were misdemeanors. Twelve percent are misdemeanor drunk driving offenses. Illegal aliens make up as much as 40 percent of the gang crime caseload in Northern Virginia, according to a forthcoming study by my organization.

The proposal is a winner for ICE, because its 5,500 special agents are hopelessly outnumbered and cannot handle the job of identifying and apprehending even the criminals among an illegal alien population of more than 12 million, about 300,000 of whom live in Virginia. Due to resource and staffing limitations and the way mission priorities have been defined, ICE can only cope with "the worst of the worst," in the words of Bill Reid, the ICE special agent in charge of the district that includes Virginia. That means many illegal aliens who are arrested and jailed by local officers are not being processed for removal. Most local agencies do not have the expertise to identify illegal aliens, and ICE does not have the staff to cover every state and local jail.

Mostly, this proposal will benefit the residents of the Commonwealth of Virginia, citizen and immigrant alike, because ICE's triage approach leaves a lot of the worst still on the streets. One recent government study found that about 73 of a sample of 100 illegal aliens arrested and then released because of ICE priorities went on to commit further crimes. This category would include Alfredo Ramos, an illegal alien from Mexico who was convicted of three alcohol-related misdemeanors over several months before he finally killed two Virginia Beach teenagers while driving drunk on March 30, 2007. Similar tragedies are occurring on an increasingly frequent basis around the country.

The detention space proposal is a necessary component of a larger strategy to address criminal aliens that includes mandates to determine the status of non-citizens in custody and training of state and local law enforcement agencies to enable them to do so. ICE also has a program to deputize state and local officers to process criminals for deportation. Known as the 287(g) program, this helps free up ICE resources for the most complicated cases and helps local agencies rid their communities of criminals.

Since illegal alien criminals are unlikely to go home voluntarily, this program will not work without additional detention space. Sheriff's departments in the areas of the state that have the worst problems with illegal immigration already have a shortage of detention space. Loudoun County, for example, is building a new county jail to double capacity from 120 to 220 beds. Yet their jail population can typically exceed 400 inmates, many of whom are sent to facilities outside the county. Gang investigators in Loudoun say that detention space is the biggest problem they face in dealing with the many illegal alien gang members from the county, so the benefits of this proposal are quite tangible.

While immigration is supposedly a federal responsibility, the scale of the job far surpasses the federal government's capacity to control it, and the costs fall disproportionately on state and local government. Virginia legislators and ICE should not hesitate to endorse the Crime Commission's proposal and others that utilize immigration law enforcement tools on behalf of public safety.

Jessica M. Vaughan is a senior policy analyst at the Center for Immigration Studies.