Virginia’s Attorney General, Ken Cuccinelli, last week released an advisory opinion concluding that law enforcement officers in the Commonwealth “may… inquire into the immigration status of persons stopped or arrested.” The AG had previously determined that “law enforcement officers in Virginia in fact have the authority to arrest persons for criminal violations of immigration laws.” Last week’s opinion effectively expands law enforcement’s power to inquire about a person’s immigration status:So long as the officers have the requisite level of suspicion to believe that a violation of the law has occurred, the officers may detain and briefly question a person they suspect has committed a federal crime.
It’s a little unclear to me what this means. The opinion recognizes a distinction between civil and criminal violations of the immigration law, but it is not always clear whether the opinion is referring to civil violations, criminal violations or both.
It’s also unclear how this advisory opinion will impact asylum seekers. Many people in Virginia–including many of my clients–have pending asylum cases. Some of these cases take years to resolve, and oft times the asylum seekers do not have any solid evidence of lawful status in the U.S. At most, such people have a work permit, which is not proof positive of lawful status (in some cases, an alien’s status is terminated, but he remains in possession of his work permit). Other times, the alien will have only a printed paper from the Immigration Court or the asylum office. Anyone with a printer could create such a document, so it is weak proof of status.
How then will Virginia law enforcement officers deal with asylum seekers? Will they detain them until their status can be determined? Detaining people who have possibly suffered past persecution and who have come to our country for help seems a cruel joke. Or will the police simply take an alien’s word for it when she claims to be an asylum seeker? I doubt such an “honor system” would be acceptable to the AG’s supporters. Or maybe the police will be trained in the various documents that accompany asylum cases. But this would be a poor use of time for officers who are already overburdened.
One possible solution would be for the federal government to immediately issue an identity document to anyone who claims asylum. At least this would help such people avoid running afoul of local law enforcement. As a patchwork of anti-immigrant laws spreads across the country, perhaps this type of federal intervention is the only practical way to protect people who have come here seeking asylum.