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Q&A: Is Richmond a Sanctuary City? Yes and No.

What’s changing, what’s not, and what remains unknown about how Richmond treats immigrants who live here illegally.


What is a sanctuary city?

Broadly, it’s a municipality that protects undocumented residents by not cooperating with federal immigration enforcement and by providing access to social services. Localities can declare themselves sanctuaries, like San Francisco did in 1989, or be labeled one by outside organizations looking at police department and sheriff’s office policies.

Is Richmond a sanctuary city?

No, is the short answer.

But nowhere is.

President Donald Trump signed an executive order Jan. 25 to strengthen immigration enforcement and punish municipalities that refuse to cooperate with immigration authorities. In doing so, he ignited long-simmering controversies over patchwork immigration law — and local policies that govern how law enforcement officials interact with undocumented immigrants and how local jails interact with Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

And it left a number of people wondering:

How does immigration enforcement actually work?

Here’s one scenario: A police officer pulls you over for speeding. You’re an otherwise law-abiding person. You show your driver’s license, you get a ticket, you pay the ticket via the mail.

Now let’s say you have no license, which is a probability for an undocumented immigrant because the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles requires you to prove citizenship. There are 12 states where that isn’t a requirement.

A first offense might slide, and there’s discretion for an officer to issue a notice for you to appear before the court at a later date.

Once at court, a misdemeanor or two probably won’t send you to jail. And ICE has what it calls a “sensitive locations” policy of not picking people up at schools, churches and courts — though that policy has been tested of late, with reports to the contrary.

A noncitizen or non-English speaker may not know all this, but it’s hoped that a lawyer and translator would help. Because not showing up for a court date is a problem.

Back to that traffic stop: With multiple offenses of unlicensed driving, or aggravating factors like suspected intoxication, you’ll be arrested.

Same with a simple public intoxication charge with no driving involved. Law enforcement officers don’t have “drunk tanks” where they hold and release you. If you’re arrested, you’re processed.

Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. oversees the jail and its interactions with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. oversees the jail and its interactions with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, known as ICE.

So what happens at jail?

Now you’re under the jurisdiction of Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. You’ll be fingerprinted and booked.

“When an individual is booked into custody by a law enforcement agency,” says Carissa Cutrell, a public affairs officer at the Norfolk ICE office, “their biometric data is automatically routed through federal databases and ICE is notified.”

If the person is undocumented, ICE can issue a detainer request almost immediately, asking that the jail hold the person for an extra 48 hours beyond when he or she otherwise would have been released.

A page on the ICE website — now with a glaring red banner indicating that these are former procedures from 2015-2017 — lists all detainer directives as voluntary. Trump’s executive order implies that he wants otherwise, but it would be an uphill legal battle.

This 48-hour request most often is an issue when someone is picked up on a small-time offense, arraigned within 24 hours, and released on bond — hardly time for ICE to come pick someone up.

To the Virginia chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and immigrants’ rights advocates, there is absolutely no discretion to hold someone that extra time without an accompanying warrant for arrest, signed by a judge.

The same is true when a neighboring locality wants a sheriff to hold a person of interest, says Charlie Schmidt, a lawyer with the ACLU: “If I hold them without a warrant, I’m subjecting myself to liability.”

That position is supported by Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring in a January 2015 opinion, which provides sheriffs with legal cover to defy ICE requests.

Some people say that window doesn’t give ICE the time it needs to get a warrant for someone who might be a more dangerous criminal than their small-time charge supposes.

But no one is getting bonded out for a major crime, Schmidt says. “Violent crimes, assault, major drug violations,” he says — “you’re not getting a bond from a Virginia judge. You’re just going to sit there.”

Protesters at Adams and Broad streets support sanctuary on Inauguration Day. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Protesters at Adams and Broad streets support sanctuary on Inauguration Day.

What is ICE and who can act on its behalf?

ICE is a federal agency of about 20,000 people tasked with enforcing immigration law. There are around 11 million unauthorized people living in the United States — about 272,000 of them in Virginia, according to the Migration Policy Institute. So ICE relies on enforcement priorities set by the executive branch.

An important thing to note is that it’s not a criminal violation to be in the United States without legal papers. It’s a civil one. And ICE is arguably the only department that can enforce it.

But there are some Virginia laws that muddy the water. One, passed in 2004, gives immigration enforcement authority to all law-enforcement officials, such as police officers and sheriff’s office officials. An officer may, acting upon “reasonable suspicion that an individual has committed or is committing a crime, arrest the individual without a warrant” at ICE’s behest.

Cutrell also notes that individuals taken into ICE custody are processed as prescribed by the Immigration and Nationality Act. And they’re given the ability to challenge the detainer at another court date in front of an immigration judge.

Those who pose a flight risk or a risk to public safety are put in an immigration detention center, like the 775-bed one built in Farmville in 2010. In theory, however, any undocumented resident could be viewed as a flight risk.

How does ICE determine whom to issue detainer warrants for?

ICE has access to national and international databases of the FBI and Department of Homeland Security.

“Some of these folks might be brought in for driving on suspended license, but they may be wanted in their native land for something more serious,” says Tony Pham, general counsel for the Richmond Sheriff’s Office. “Maybe they’ve been identified as [a member of El Salvadoran gang] MS-13.”

Former President Barack Obama’s administration issued a memorandum prioritizing “threats to national security, public safety and border security” in enforcement and removal policies. The Trump administration will issue new priorities and plans to hire 10,000 more employees for ICE.

Does Sheriff Woody cooperate with ICE?

“The sheriff works closely with ICE counterparts,” Pham says. “Their role is to make the individual available for receiving by ICE. Whether ICE comes and picks up individual, that’s on ICE.”

The Richmond jail does not hold people past the end of their state sentences, unless ICE has produced a criminal warrant, Pham says. If someone is being let out quickly on bond, the office will tell ICE that, but not hold that person longer than it would a citizen.

What does that look like at the Richmond Jail?


What is ICE Out of RVA, and what is its goal?

It’s an organization whose members want training for the Richmond Police Department and Richmond Sheriff’s Office about policies prohibiting citizenship inquiry.

Its goals also include a transparent mechanism for reporting violations of such inquiries, policing that doesn’t profile neighborhoods based on actual or suspected race or immigration status, and a policy of not holding people beyond their bond release or sentence — that is, no 48-hour grace period for ICE.

The group’s leader, community organizer Carolina Velez, has worked on the issue for years and on helping undocumented immigrants understand their rights.

Deportation is “never OK,” she says, even after the most serious crimes. She prefers open borders, effectively the policy of the United States until the 1880s. Before then, a clean bill of health was about all you needed to start down the path to citizenship.

Velez says the United States is partly responsible for conditions in such countries as her native Colombia and Mexico, where American involvement in drug wars has exacerbated violence. “I didn’t migrate here because of a choice,” she says.

But because an open-border scenario is unlikely, Velez and others are focusing on the Richmond region and municipal enforcement of immigration law.

Community organizer and ICE out of RVA leader Carolina Valez speaks at a rally for sanctuary cities on Feb. 13. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Community organizer and ICE out of RVA leader Carolina Valez speaks at a rally for sanctuary cities on Feb. 13.

What is the Richmond Police Department’s stance?

“At no time during any citizen interaction does the RPD ask any person of the immigration status,” Richmond Police Chief Alfred Durham says.

Asked about specific types of interactions, department spokesman Gene Lepley writes: “I am not a fan of hypotheticals. However: Our officers are well trained and have discretion in how they perform their jobs.

“If the officer cites the driver for not having a valid license, that’s up to the officer — who considers an untold number of factors at that moment in making his or her decision.”

Immigration status isn’t one of those factors, Lepley notes.

Is that true in practice?

“We have many people that say, we opened the door for a police officer and immigration was behind them,” Velez says, “and that’s how immigration got to us.”

A year and a half ago, she says she saw a large police presence in her neighborhood and asked an officer what happened.

“He looked at me and said, ‘We’re here because of your people,’” she recalls. “I said, ‘Oh, what do you mean, did my people do something?’”

She says he replied, “Well, you all do it, everything, all the time.”

When she accused the officer of discrimination, Velez says, he asked about her immigration status. She filed a complaint and received a letter acknowledging her complaint.

An online complaint system for the Richmond Police Department requires your name, number and address. It’s not set up to be anonymous like some other police tip lines.

Mayor Levar Stoney at City Council on Feb. 13, where sanctuary city advocates rallied and spoke. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Mayor Levar Stoney at City Council on Feb. 13, where sanctuary city advocates rallied and spoke.

Didn’t the Richmond mayor recently weigh in on the issue?

Mayor Levar Stoney issued a directive Feb. 6 restating city policies on undocumented people living in Richmond and affirming “policies of inclusion.”

With Durham by his side, Stoney said that the police do not consent to the ICE program — similar to the state law — delegating immigration enforcement authority to local law officers.

State Republicans came out strongly against this directive, and liberals lauded it — though some said it didn’t go far enough.

But the sheriff, Woody, was not present at that event.

Woody is independently elected by Richmond voters and upholds state law. A former officer and detective with the Richmond Police Department, Woody was first elected in 2005 and is nearing the end of his third term. There are no term limits for sheriffs in Virginia, and he will be on the ballot again in November.

He ran against three people in 2013 and won handily. His closest competitor was activist Chris Dorsey.

What’s the situation in Richmond’s surrounding counties?

Data collected by CBS-6 earlier this month from the sheriffs’ offices in Chesterfield and Henrico counties show that between 2014 and 2016, ICE issued the most detainer requests to Chesterfield, at 370. Henrico came second at 159, during a time when Richmond received 31.

“Everyone has this perception that Richmond is ground zero,” Pham says, “but we’re not.”

A report by the Washington-based Center for Immigration Studies lists Chesterfield County as a sanctuary jurisdiction in a 2015 report, because it did not adhere to ICE’s request for the extra 48 hours.

That’s not a term used by Chesterfield Sheriff Karl S. Leonard, but he confirms that it does not hold people beyond their release without an arrest warrant or legal court documentation, as the “courtesy holds” are not legal detentions.

“If a detained illegal immigrant is getting ready to be bonded out, to make bail, or has served whatever jail sentence they had,” Leonard writes in an email, “we afford ICE a reasonable amount of time to drive to our facility to pick them up (less than 2 hours) and if they do not, we release them.”

He adds that they maintain “a very good relationship” with ICE, though.

Henrico County Sheriff Mike Wade, on the other hand, works closely with ICE. “We have an open door policy with ICE and let them come in,” he told CBS-6. “We make their job easy.”

A Henrico man, Jaime Alfaro-Garcia, is currently suing Wade, accusing the sheriff of holding him beyond the 48-hour period set forth in the detainer request, among other due process violations. Wade lost a bid for Congress last year in a race against Donald McEachin.

What do the state laws being considered by the General Assembly mean?

Nothing, because Gov. Terry McAuliffe has stated that he plans to veto such bills as one that threatens “sanctuary cities” with a civil liability for all undocumented people in their limits. He’d also shoot down one advanced by Delegate Bob Marshall last week that would require jails and prisons to give ICE those two extra days to pick up people.

It underscores the importance of who holds that veto pen next year. Virginians will elect a new governor in November, and the Republican-controlled Virginia legislature is likely to try again next year.

Around 150 people came out in support of Richmond as a sanctuary city. At right, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, director of the Virginia ACLU, was among the speakers. - SCOTT ELMQUIST
  • Scott Elmquist
  • Around 150 people came out in support of Richmond as a sanctuary city. At right, Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, director of the Virginia ACLU, was among the speakers.

How much federal funding does Richmond stand to lose?

With the mayor’s directive declining to work with ICE, there seems to be a chance that Richmond could lose some federal funding as a consequence.

But it’s difficult to determine how much. Richmond receives tens of millions of dollars a year from the federal government for housing, transportation projects and social services. Much of that money is filtered via block grants through state agencies, so it’s unclear whether a Democratic governor would enforce a Trump directive.

There’s also legal skepticism about Trump’s funding threat. A 1987 Supreme Court ruling found that federal funding could be withheld only if it’s relevant “to the federal interest in the project.”

It’s more likely that Trump will expand ICE and its ability to do raids, allow collateral arrests — arresting people not explicitly targeted by a raid — and expand deportation priorities to include those who have committed less serious crimes.

So wait — is Richmond a sanctuary city or not?

Certainly America is, for some people. Tony Pham’s family came over from Saigon in 1975, when he was 2 years old, fleeing the North Vietnamese army. They were granted asylum and happened to be sponsored to Henrico County, where his parents worked four minimum wage jobs between them. The family became citizens in 1985. Pham and his sister received law and medical degrees, respectively.

So the Richmond region has been the backdrop for what he calls his family’s “American dream.”

But for organizers like Velez, it’s a broader and older fight.

“Has Richmond been a sanctuary for black people, for the LGBT community? No,” she says. “This country was built for a particular race and a particular socio-economic class.”

She cites an announcement by the mayor of New York that he would take a stand against the Trump executive order. But ICE raided homes and businesses there last week.

“That was my question at city hall,” Velez says. “When immigration comes, on what side are the mayor and City Council going to stand?”

Will they know it’s happening?

“ICE conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy,” ICE’s Cutrell says by email. “ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately.” S