A Pro-ICE Bastion Ends Its Partnership With the Agency in Virginia

Prince William County has forged a close partnership with ICE. But a local board opted to end its 287(g) contract on Wednesday.

Felipe De La Hoz   |    June 15, 2020

Corey Stewart, the outgoing chair of the Board of Supervisors of Prince William County, championed partnerships with ICE. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

This article originally appeared on The Appeal, which hosted The Political Report project.

Prince William County forged a close partnership with ICE since 2007. Fueled by its changing politics and local organizing, a local board opted to not renew its membership in the 287(g) program on Wednesday.

The Prince William-Manassas Jail Board decided on Wednesday to end its participation in ICE’s 287(g) program, a resounding win for immigrants’ rights activists who have fought this contract for more than a decade.

The meeting was dominated by extensive exchanges between Tracey Lenox and Elizabeth Guzmán, two board members who pushed against the 287(g) program, and GOP Sheriff Glendell Hill and ICE officials, who defended it. It became clear during the debates that a majority opposed renewing the contract, which expires on June 30; the board held no vote, and Hill confirmed this means the partnership would end at the end of the month.

Below is Felipe De La Hoz’s article, published on Monday, on the organizing and the electoral shifts that led to this development.

In 2007, Virginia’s Prince William County—a mere stone’s throw from the nation’s capital—became a flashpoint in the broader battles over immigrants’ rights as policymakers advanced a series of anti-immigrant measures that made national headlines and rattled the area’s growing immigrant population.

Along with policies restricting access to public services for undocumented residents, the County Board of Supervisors permitted police to inquire about citizenship and immigration status, paving the way for the county to join ICE’s 287(g) program alongside the city of Manassas. In its current form, this agreement deputizes certain local law enforcement officials to perform some of the activities of federal immigration agents in the Prince William-Manassas jail, one of just two facilities in Virginia that is in this program. 

On Wednesday, the local authority that oversees the jail may vote to end its participation in the 287(g) program, which would bring to fruition 13 years of local organizing. 

Prince William County is a microcosm of shifting power dynamics in communities with expanding immigrant populations across the country, shifts that have been turbocharged by the raw emotions of the Trump era. Back when this suburban county joined 287(g) in 2007, it had voted Republican in the 10 most recent presidential races and was led by the arch-conservative politician Corey Stewart. Trump lost the county by 21 percentage points in 2016, though, and Stewart’s reign ended last year with Democrats taking control of the Board of Supervisors.

But the power over the 287(g) contract rests with a different board that has a more fractured politics. That leaves the outcome of Wednesday’s vote uncertain.

The Prince William-Manassas Jail Board, which operates the jail and supervises the 287(g) agreement, has 11 members. These include elected officials and appointees from both populous Prince William and smaller Manassas. A board majority could vote to let 287(g) expire at the end of June or, inversely, to renew the contract. 

In May, the new Democratic majority in the Prince William County Board of Supervisors boosted the prospect that the jail board will side against cooperating with ICE when it voted along party lines to replace three members it can directly appoint. At least one of the new members is championing an end to the contract, with two more appearing to lean in that direction. But Sheriff Glendell Hill, a Republican who won a contested re-election race in 2019, remains a powerful force defending the 287(g) program on the jail board.

It’s been a long road from a county that produced the political rise of Stewart—who, after chairing the Board of Supervisors and pushing through the 2007 measures, became a failed Trump surrogate and lost a Senate race—to one that is considering pulling out of the cooperation scheme.

“It was a series of resolutions authored by effectively white supremacist groups, national associations, that had offices in Washington D.C.,” said former Board of Supervisors member Frank Principi, who was elected just after the measures were put into place and lost his primary race last year, of the 2007 measures. He was referencing the so-called Tanton network of immigration restrictionist organizations.

A 2009 Brookings Institution report found that local residents were bewildered by the area’s growing population and the attendant strain on public services. “More subtly, but just as importantly, the character of these changes aroused anxiety among some of Prince William’s long-time residents about the county’s changing identity,” read the report. Community activists have long denounced the dynamic by which a concern over quality of life masks an undercurrent of general discomfort with a largely Latinx immigrant population. 

Luis Aguilar, the Virginia state director for the immigrant advocacy organization CASA, said that the Board of Supervisors, faced with an influx of people that would need to be accommodated, chose to drive them away rather than set up the infrastructure to provide services. “It was a calculus that they were not capable of handling the immigrants that were coming from the D.C. metropolitan area correctly,” he said. Stewart did not respond to a call seeking comment.

If the objective was to make immigrant families feel under siege enough to leave, the strategy certainly worked. After the changes, immigrant families began departing in droves, even before it was clear how much impact the policies would have. “They started leaving their homes, and the city became like a ghost town,” said Lenka Mendoza, an undocumented community organizer who has lived in the county since she moved there with her husband and young children in 2001. 

The fear has remained, Mendoza added. She stressed that a single agency cooperating with ICE can affect local residents’ broader participation in public services out of concern that local authorities are in league with ICE. She mentioned hearing of people during the COVID-19 pandemic who were avoiding testing sites or food banks where they would be asked for ID.

Initially, the 287(g) agreement allowed police to question people about their immigration status while conducting arrests; that authority ended in 2012 as part of the Obama administration’s phase-out of these so-called “task force” agreements. As it exists now, the agreement authorizes officials to interrogate people booked into the jail about their immigration status, run checks on Homeland Security databases, and, if they have reason to suspect that the individual does not have a valid immigration status, alert ICE and hold the person in custody for up to 48 business hours after they would otherwise have been released.

What has shifted since 2007, advocates said, is a maturation of the local immigrant community’s political organizing, which hitched on to the broader “blue wave” that swept the state last year to help turn the county board to Democratic control for the first time since 1999

“People are participating more now, despite the fears that remain, because we’re tired of it,” said Mendoza. “It was very emotional, very gratifying, to be able to participate [in the last Board of Supervisors meeting] in my county, where I’ve lived for many years and paid taxes, and to speak my language and have a translator, something that before would have seemed impossible.” Principi echoed Mendoza’s assessment, adding that this engagement has helped newer politicians “bring volunteers from outside, bring campaign dollars from outside, and to be able to afford more expensive campaign managers and staff.”

The jail board’s vote itself appears to be a toss-up, though Aguilar said he was confident that the activists had the votes to terminate the contract. The Appeal: Political Report attempted to reach all 11 members of the jail board.

State Delegate Elizabeth Guzmán, an immigrant who was elected to the Virginia House as a Democrat in 2017 and appointed to the jail board by county supervisors in May, is the strongest voice against renewing 287(g). In a phone interview, she rejected its proponents’ claim that it helps fight crime by stressing how extremely uncommon it is for a county to be part of it. Amy Ashworth, the commonwealth’s attorney, also indicated she was leaning toward opposing renewal. She told the Political Report during her campaign last year that she opposed 287(g) ; she said this week that she had asked its defenders to explain its benefits but was unsatisfied with their answers.

Two citizens-at-large appointed to the board by their jurisdictions, Lisa Climer from Manassas and Tracey Lenox from Prince William County, did not provide a definitive position, though each indicated some skepticism toward the agreement. “I question the value and advisability of 287(g), but I also believe the Board needs a thoughtful and thorough discussion of the policy’s merits and detriments,” Lenox said. Climer said “I’m really not ready to say” how she will vote, while also noting that “only one other jurisdiction in Virginia that has this agreement.”

Hill, the sheriff, did not reply but he has championed the 287(g) program in the past. The chiefs of police for both Prince William County (Barry Barnard) and Manassas (Douglas Keen) have seats on the board but neither replied to a request for comment.

Four other jail board members—Prince William County Clerk of the Court Jacqueline Smith, County Executive Christopher Martino, Cozy Bailey, the board of supervisors’ third appointee, and Steven Austin, the director of the county’s office of criminal justice services—also did not reply.

Even if the jail board votes to renew the contract, Principi believes the Board of Supervisors could kill the agreement in other ways: It could, for instance, defund the jail personnel who administer the program, rendering termination null, or add more members to the jail board who will vote in favor of expiry. This “brand-new board” is still finding its way, he noted. “Folks are still trying to find the bathroom, still trying to sort out what their legal, political, budgetary, and other sources of authority are.”