The Prince William Board of County Supervisors was in the middle of an otherwise sleepy meeting Jan. 24 before Chairman Corey Stewart managed to steer the conversation to the issue that’s defined his political career over the better part of the last decade: immigration.
As supervisors went back and forth in a genial discussion about the board’s lobbying priorities for the new Congress, the Republican proposed that the county ask the incoming Trump administration about what’s become of the thousands of undocumented immigrants Prince William law enforcement officers reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents over the years.
Stewart helped push for the partnership with federal authorities, known as a “287(g) agreement,” back in 2007. Ever since, county jail staffers have alerted ICE officials anytime they arrested an undocumented person (county police and the sheriff’s office also participated in the program for several years before letting their agreements lapse). The jail can then hold anyone in the country illegally for up to 48 hours, and even transfer them to ICE’s custody.
From there, it’s up to the federal agency whether to try and deport those people or not. That’s why Stewart has repeatedly beat this particular drum, spurring the county to file a series of public records requests with the Department of Homeland Security over the years to shed some light on what’s become of these immigrants.
“We’ve still got the policy in place, we’re enforcing it, but it seems to me that it’s not going to do a lot of good if the feds just continue to release these criminals back into the community,” Stewart said at the Jan. 24 meeting. “We need our police and justice system--our courts, our magistrates--to know what was done with this individual. Were they released by the federal government or deported?”
The board unanimously agreed to send the letter, but Stewart followed up with a Feb. 7 press conference to trumpet that action. Specifically, he said the letter would call on ICE to “identify, detain and remove the 7,500 criminal illegal aliens we’ve handed over to ICE over the past 10 years.” Though it’s a request he’s made before, he felt it might finally succeed because “ICE today is different than ICE before Jan. 20” when President Donald Trump took office.
That prompted an immediate public backlash, with dozens of protesters swarming the board’s next meeting to decry Stewart’s rhetoric as mere fear-mongering as he ramps up his campaign for Virginia governor. Indeed, Stewart even went so far as to claim in a Jan. 18 campaign ad that he has “deported 7,500 illegals” in his time as board chairman to beef up his conservative bonafides.
“They want to allow criminal illegals to rape, pillage and murder,” Stewart wrote in a Feb. 15 statement responding to the protests. “They have no respect for police or our way of life."
DATA ON THE IMMIGRANTS
But left unanswered through Stewart’s many public pronouncements on this issue is the simple question: Does ICE have data on the immigrants Stewart so desperately wants to track down?
For the most part, the answer is “Yes.” The agency released a series of data sets on 287(g) programs nationwide through Freedom of Information Act requests filed a researcher at Arizona State University, and they detail how many arrested immigrants each law enforcement agency has reported to ICE and how many have subsequently been deported.
In Prince William, county police, sheriffs and jailers have identified 6,464 undocumented immigrants from 2007 through 2013, the last year data are available. Of those people, ICE has chosen to deport 3,056, or just under half.
Stewart initially agreed to answer questions about these numbers in an interview, then asked to reply to written queries instead. Matt Brown, a senior aide to Stewart, wrote in an email that the chairman still wants more data from DHS “for investigative purposes to ensure that these individuals will not be a public safety risk,” even in light of this new information.
Brown also noted that data from the Prince William-Manassas Regional Adult Detention Center suggests that jailers “re-encountered” as many as 14 percent of the undocumented immigrants reported to ICE through the 287(g) program.
“Common sense would tell you that if 14 percent were re-encountered just within the county jail system alone, then many more were as well,” Brown wrote.
Yet Charis Kubrin, a professor of criminology, sociology and law at the University of California, Irvine, says there’s a simple explanation for why ICE might release someone reported through a 287(g) arrangement: They may not have committed any serious crime.
“It’s not to say you won’t find some serious, hardcore criminals in these programs, but the vast majority of what’s happening in these programs are people who have committed relatively minor offenses being targeted,” Kubrin said.
Kubrin says research in the field runs directly counter to Stewart’s claims about the program, and contends that there are a wide variety of minor offenses that could land someone in jail and get them reported to immigration authorities.
PRINCE WILLIAM EXCEEDED NATIONAL AVERAGE
But Daniel Stageman, a researcher with the John Jay College of Criminal Justice studying 287(g) programs across the country, notes that it “really depends on how zealous the jurisdiction is” when it comes to who law enforcement officials report to ICE. Indeed, the ICE data show that Prince William’s agencies exceeded the national average of immigrants reported through the program every year from 2008 through 2013, once topping the mean amount by an additional 870 people.
Yet once ICE receives a report about an undocumented immigrant, it’s entirely incumbent on the agency to follow its enforcement priorities to determine who’s actually removed from the country, according to New York immigration attorney Kerry Bretz. Former President Barack Obama directed ICE to focus on violent felons or threats to national security, people with a series of convictions or even just immigrants who arrived since 2014, in order to “discourage people from crossing the border,” Bretz said.
He believes that could explain any discrepancy between how many undocumented people are reported for removal in Prince William, versus how many are actually removed.
“They did this to make the best use of a limited amount of resources,” Bretz said. “And still, Obama deported a record number of people.” DHS data show Obama deported more people than any other president in history, even without accounting for his final year in office.
That’s why Stageman sees Stewart’s claims as based more in politics than actual facts.
“It’s been popular for a very, very long time for folks on the right to beat up on the Obama administration for any number of things, and this is just another cudgel in that armory,” Stageman said. “He’s simply making the point that Prince William County is doing its job to deal with illegal immigrant criminality, but the Obama administration is undermining those efforts. And, there’s an assumption that this new administration is going to do right by us in terms of enforcement.”
Stewart reflected that very assumption in his “new ICE” comments Feb. 7, and he is certainly right that the Trump administration is already embracing a more aggressive immigration policy. Trump himself signed a Jan. 25 executive order directing ICE to prioritize for deportation any undocumented person charged with a crime (not convicted), or even anyone who merely enters the country illegally.
BACKLOG OF CASES
Stageman expects these changes could prompt a “crisis” nationwide, particularly in a 287(g) community like Prince William, as the federal immigration courts charged with adjudicating these proceedings are “already well beyond capacity.” Bretz says he’s “never seen (the system) this backlogged” in his 25 years practicing immigration law, and that’s before Trump’s changes.
Brown said Stewart feels “this is not a subject worth considering in this debate,” as the chairman’s focus is “the community’s safety first.”
But Jennifer Varughese, an immigration attorney practicing in Prince William, says things are so jammed up in the Northern Virginia courts that she already has cases “scheduled for hearings in 2020 and beyond.” She can hardly imagine what things will look like in a few months if prosecutors no longer have the discretion to avoid pursuing deportation proceedings against people who may not pose a threat to the community.
“We’re preparing to see individuals who otherwise may have been able to stay being swept up into the system,” Varughese said. “That means if they had U.S. citizen or green card-holding family members, or children born here, they’re leaving behind family members. That is breaking up families that may consist of a majority of U.S. citizens.”
Kubrin says she’s heard plenty of arguments against that line of thinking from politicians like Stewart: “You might say, ‘Who cares, they’re undocumented, send them back. They shouldn’t even be here.’” But when local authorities get involved in deporting people for the most minor offenses, she fears what effect that could have on the community.
“It feels good to say that, but the problem is the collateral consequences,” Kubrin said. “We’re breaking up families and making individuals less likely to report crimes to police, for victims to come forward because they’re afraid of the police. This is why police officers were not crazy about these programs.”
Indeed, 63 police chiefs from around the country recently sent a letter to some members of Congress expressing concern about local involvement in immigration enforcement for those very reasons.
But above all else, Kubrin is profoundly disturbed that all of these deportation efforts by politicians like Trump and Stewart rest on the “patently false” allegation that undocumented immigrants commit more crimes than people in the country legally.
She notes that study after study have disproved these claims, even as Stewart points to the county’s drop in violent crimes during his tenure as chairman as evidence that his immigration policies are working.
“Saying, ‘Here’s one trend and here’s another trend’ simply doesn’t show those trends are related,” Kubrin said.
Nevertheless, Stewart is now going a step further and pushing for every law enforcement agency in the state to embrace the 287(g) program as part of his gubernatorial bid. But before he has the chance to try and enact these policies statewide, Stageman sees a crucial role for people directly affected by these immigration measures to make their voices heard.
“If people in Prince William County want to stand up for the immigrant community and affirm their membership in this social contract, this is the time to do it,” Stageman said.