Yanet Garcia, Judith Alvarez, and Marilyn Dunphy sit together in the lobby of the Culpeper County Library. Credit–Sarah Schwartz

How activists in Virginia are trying to stop deportations

Yanet Garcia has had a lot of long days recently. She’s spent evenings speaking at county board of supervisors meetings, gathering signatures on petitions, and planning community information sessions. Garcia, who was never involved with political organizing before now, is one of a group of local activists in Culpeper County, Virginia, organizing against a new immigration enforcement program that the federal government recently approved there.

When Culpeper’s sheriff, Scott Jenkins, applied for the program last year, it sent chills through members of the the area’s immigrant community. Known as 287(g), named for the applicable section of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act, the program allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with Immigration and Customs Enforcement. After making an arrest, local officers can question people about their immigration status, serve arrest warrants for immigration violations, and issue immigration detainers on behalf of ICE. It essentially grants local law enforcement the same powers as federal immigration agents.

Garcia, who is Latina and a U.S. citizen, is active in her Baptist church, a Girl Scout mom, and one of the organizers of Culpeper Fiesta, an annual celebration of Latino art and culture in the county. She says the people who this program will affect are her friends, her neighbors. “I don’t want them to have to struggle more than they already do,” she told Scalawag.

Research about the effects of the 287(g) program, which was signed into law in 1996, has found that it can lead to racial profiling, widespread fear, and immigrants leaving the cities and counties where it has been implemented. “This program frays the community’s relationship of security and trust with the local law enforcement,” said Sophia Gregg, an attorney with the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia, which has been supporting Culpeper residents to organize against 287(g).

President Trump signed an executive order just after taking office, instructing the federal government seek out more 287(g) partnerships. Media attention to the issue has grown since Trump issued this directive, and communities across the country are pushing back, in some cases bringing new attention to 287(g) agreements that have been in place for years.

Results have been mixed. In Fauquier, right across the county line from Culpeper, the sheriff decided to abandon his application after public outcry. But in Fort Worth, Texas, and Mecklenburg, North Carolina, locals pressing law enforcement to rescind agreements haven’t succeeded. The number of localities with 287(g) agreements doubled during the first year of Trump’s presidency.

In Culpeper, a mostly-rural county in central Virginia, resistance to the program is shaping new community activists. At the same time, it’s highlighting the tension between the sheriff’s office and immigrant communities. And not everyone is willing to go out on a limb to protect their neighbors.

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“It hit me hard, because my family can be affected by it,” said David, an undocumented 19-year-old (he asked that his last name not be published for fear of legal consequences). He and Judith Alvarez, another recent high school graduate, now a student at a local community college, have both spoken against the program at a county board of supervisors’ meeting at Garcia’s suggestion.

Members of the Latino community and the Culpeper Persisters—a progressive group that formed after the Women’s March—have been organizing against 287(g) since the fall of 2017. Garcia, a Persisters member named Marilyn Dunphy, and others have worked with Gregg, Legal Aid, the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, and the ACLU of Virginia to gather signatures on petitions, organize “know your rights” information sessions, and hold power of attorney clinics. Dunphy and Garcia were among the dozens of people who flooded a county board of supervisors meeting in December, imploring the members to do something to block the program. Garcia is one of the moderators of a 1,400-member Facebook information group, posting updates about events. “I have to be honest with you—I didn’t think it was going to be this big,” she said.

Federal approval of Culpeper’s 287(g) partnership in January marked a turning point. The sheriff plans to sign the official agreement at the end of this month. Judith Alvarez says she personally knows at least one family that has already moved, in anticipation of 287(g)’s implementation. Her family is thinking about leaving Culpeper as well.

“I’d rather leave on my own, because I can at least take my things, and like some people say, my dignity,” said David, who plans to move to Puebla, Mexico, where he was born, and where he has accepted an offer of admission to college. He says the approval of 287(g) was the final factor in his decision. “I don’t want to just be deported back with nothing.”

David’s mom plans to stay in the U.S., but may move to nearby Orange county. His sister, who has a baby who is a U.S. citizen, is awaiting an immigration court date in August. David’s not sure where any of his family will be in a few months, but it’s most likely they won’t be together.

“I’d rather leave on my own, because I can at least take my things, and like some people say, my dignity...I don’t want to just be deported back with nothing.”

At a meeting with organizers last year, Garcia says Sheriff Jenkins told her that he wanted to build a strong relationship with the Latino community and be transparent about the 287(g) application and enforcement process. “That was the first and the last time I spoke to him,” she said. She says she’s called again for updates on the process, but her messages weren’t returned. Scalawag made multiple phone requests to speak with Jenkins for this story, but never heard back from the sheriff’s department.

Legal Aid is organizing a rally against the program for the weekend before the sheriff is scheduled to sign the agreement, and organizers plan to appeal one more time to the board of supervisors. But the board says the decision isn’t theirs to make, and that the sheriff, an elected official, doesn’t need their permission to apply for or implement the program.

David’s mom plans to stay in the U.S., but may move to nearby Orange county. His sister, who has a baby who is a U.S. citizen, is awaiting an immigration court date in August. David’s not sure where any of his family will be in a few months, but it’s most likely they won’t be together.

The board chairman, William C. Chase, Jr., says the board would only be responsible for the program’s activities if the county had to allocate additional funding to the sheriff’s department. Chase isn’t worried about that, as he’s been assured that the program “wouldn’t cost the county a nickel.”

The federal government pays for officers’ training, but not overtime or personnel costs resulting from law enforcement’s additional duties. Evaluations of other 287(g) programs in Virginia and North Carolina have found that they can cost millions of dollars to implement.

The Culpeper Star-Exponent reports that Jenkins requested an additional sum of over $600,000 for next year’s sheriff’s department budget, to add four new positions. The sheriff has said that he’s requesting the personnel increases to return staffing levels to where they were before budget cuts a decade ago, and to hire an additional narcotics detective to address Culpeper’s drug problem.

But Gregg with Legal Aid thinks that the funding is specifically for 287(g). Jenkins has said that he plans to start the program with four staff, the same number that the new funding would pay for. The sheriff’s office did not return requests for comment.

Beyond financing, Chase says he isn’t worried that immigrants might fear calling the police. As long as they “stay out of trouble,” he said in an interview, they shouldn’t have any problems.

But staying out of trouble isn’t quite so simple. People have to drive to work, and all it takes is a broken tail light or a decal hanging from the rearview mirror to get pulled over, Dunphy says.

“We kind of wish they would try a little harder,” said Dunphy, about the county board. “But nobody seems to want to deal with it.”

Still, some immigrants don’t think the 287(g) program would actually change anything. The consequences that Gregg and the other organizers warned of—like racial profiling and mistrust between the police department and Latino residents—are problems they already face.

The sheriff’s department was also already honoring ICE detainers, requests from the federal agency that the sheriff hold people who may be undocumented for up to 48 hours after their release from jail, to allow ICE time to pick them up. Local law enforcement agencies like the Culpeper sheriff’s office choose to honor these requests, but several federal courts have found detainers unconstitutional, even as Trump’s justice department continues to push for their use.

Even now, the sheriff’s office is holding people who have been issued ICE detainers for longer than the specified 48-hour period. The ACLU has documented several cases where people were held for almost a week beyond their release dates in Culpeper. Before the news broke about the 287(g) application, Garcia said incidents like these already discouraged people from seeking help from the police.

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The Department of Homeland Security started entering into 287(g) agreements with state and local law enforcement in 2002, and by 2008, nine local sheriffs departments, police forces, and jails in Virginia were participating. Prince William County, one of the nine, implemented the state’s most controversial and expansive policies targeting undocumented immigrants in 2007, a backlash to rapid growth in the county’s Latino population.

Though 287(g) expanded under the Obama administration, DHS began rolling back the program in 2012. At the time, cities and counties with 287(g) agreements could enforce immigration law in their jails—the way all 287(g) programs work today—or they could enter into task force agreements, where law enforcement could ask about immigration status during street-level policing. All task force agreements were discontinued nationwide at the end of 2012. Currently, Prince William is the only county in the state that still has an active jail program.

In Prince William County, white residents’ response to the growing Latino population has been pointed and vocal. They have complained about property code violations and overcrowded schools, and said that they worried home values would decline. A Brookings analysis of the program from 2009 concluded that long-time residents saw 287(g) as a way to target those who they felt were responsible for change in their community, regardless of the newcomers’ immigration statuses.

But this narrative—an outraged community launching a campaign to rid the county of a surging Latino population—doesn’t feel familiar to the advocates in Culpeper.

She knows she’s forcing her white neighbors to confront the likelihood there will be deportations, separated families—topics they don’t want to have to think too hard about.

There’s been a strong Latino community here for years, says Garcia, and this is the first time she’s heard such public concern about immigration. “It never bothered anybody before,” she said. Chase, who’s been a member of the board of supervisors for more than 30 years, said he can’t remember a time before now that someone came before the board to raise illegal immigration as an issue.

So why now? Alvarez and David say that President Trump is driving it. There’s more negative feeling directed toward immigrants now that Trump is in office, David said. “They just think that because he got elected, they have the right to say whatever they feel like,” said Alvarez.

Some white residents of Culpeper make the same accusations about undocumented immigrants that Trump has repeated on a national stage. Dewey McDonnell, a software developer and a representative to the state’s Republican party who’s lived in Culpeper since the early ’80s, tried to attend the December board of supervisors meeting to speak in favor of the program. (The room was already too full when he arrived, he says, so he was turned away.)

Anyone who enters the country illegally is already a lawbreaker, he says. “Once you’re a lawbreaker, what’s to prevent you from breaking more laws? That’s when we become a lawless society.”

Jon Russell, a Culpeper town council member and chairman of the Culpeper County Republican Committee, says he trusts the sheriff’s judgment and intentions. “If that’s what he wants to do, if he thinks that’s the best way to go about it, then it’s probably a plan with merit,” he said. The Culpeper Republicans organized a counter-rally to Legal Aid’s demonstration, to be held on Russell’s property, adjacent to the protest against 287(g).

But those still on the fence about the program aren’t likely to be vocal about their doubts, said Russell. People in Culpeper have a “wait-and-see mentality,” he said. “It’s just the laid-back nature of central Virginia.”

In conversations with white Culpeper residents around the town, most deferred to the judgment of Sheriff Jenkins, or the board of supervisors. They expected that these authority figures, who understood and carried out the law, would know what was best. They said they didn’t really have an opinion on the program, and didn’t know much about the controversy surrounding it.

One woman at a local park said she knew about 287(g), with a tight-lipped smile, but she wasn’t about to risk sharing her opinions in front of people she barely knew—three moms of other players on her kid’s soccer team, who were sitting with her in the shade under a pavilion waiting for practice to end. One of the other women with her said she didn’t see anything wrong with the program. “There’s a right way to do things, and there’s a wrong way to do things,” she said. Still, she added, she could see why undocumented people might be scared.

Garcia says a lot of people in Culpeper are hesitant to publicize their views on the program. Most people in Culpeper are Republican (in last year’s governor's election, 62 percent of the vote went to Republican Ed Gillespie). Anyone opposing 287(g) could risk judgment from their friends or the people at their church.

It can be difficult to organize in the face of this silence. Dunphy and Garcia say they keep getting phone calls from Culpeper residents they know who want to help, but don’t want to align themselves publicly with the protest effort. Instead, they offer to collect donations of clothing and food for families in the community if a mother or father is going to be deported. “We appreciate it,” said Garcia, “But like that family, there’s going to be many more.”

Garcia says there are people she used to be friendly with who won’t talk to her anymore, disturbed by her public activism. She knows she’s forcing her white neighbors to confront the likelihood there will be deportations, separated families—topics they don’t want to have to think too hard about. She doesn’t want to wait and see.

  • About

    Sarah Schwartz is a freelance reporter and a contributing writer for Education Week. She’s a native of the Washington, D.C. area.