Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Bills Would Limit Police Authority to Question Immigration Status

A Chesterfield County police vehicle
A Chesterfield County police vehicle at the National Night Out event, which is designed to encourage ties between police and the broader community (Photo: Crixell Matthews/VPM News)

Law enforcement officers could no longer ask the immigration status of most crime witnesses under a bill passed by the state Senate on Wednesday.

It’s currently up to the officer to decide whether to ask that question.

Tram Nguyen, co-director of the progressive advocacy group New Virginia Majority, said the question on immigration status can scare off people from coming forward to report crimes.

“Throughout the LatinX community, we’re seeing people who are really afraid to come forward, especially people who have mixed status families,” Nguyen said.

Democratic Del. Alfonso Lopez (D-Arlington) has proposed the bill for the past two General Assembly sessions, but those efforts died in a Republican-controlled committee. This year, two House Republicans broke ranks to join Democrats in passing the bill in that body.

Republicans in the Senate universally voted against the bill, with Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Rockingham) arguing that perpetrators could describe themselves as victims to evade investigation into their immigration status.

“We’re taking away discretion from good men and women in law enforcement to do their jobs,” Obenshain said.

The bill is now headed to the governor’s desk; his spokesperson, Alena Yarmosky, said he would “carefully review this measure” but said both documented and undocumented people should feel “supported and protected by our public safety agencies.”

A separate bill from Sen. Scott Surrovell (D-Fairfax) would do away with the requirement that authorities check the immigration status of someone when they’re booked at a jail or correctional facility. 

They’d also no longer be required to report that information to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement unless the crime is a felony. In a committee meeting last month, Sen. Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), questioned an earlier version of the bill that didn’t make that exception.

The proposal passed the Senate in a party-line vote despite opposition from the Virginia Sheriff’s Association; a representative for that group told the committee they preferred uniform standards. 

Surrovell argued the current rules would make law enforcement’s job easier.

“People don’t call law enforcement because they’re worried what might happen if they do,” he said during a floor hearing of the bill.

Ben Paviour covers state politics for VPM News with a focus on accountability journalism.