Diane Bonieske packed her bags last year and moved out of her Sterling Park home of 26 years because she said her neighborhood "has gone down the tubes."
Bonieske, a member of the illegal immigration neighborhood watch group HelpSaveLoudoun, attended a candidates forum Monday night sponsored by the organization. Monday night’s forum was the first of a series the organization hopes to host, at the Senior Center in Cascades.
"We want to give citizens the opportunity to learn from each other, share ideas and express concerns," Joseph Budzinski, a member of HelpSaveLoudoun, said. "The gentlemen we have here are not required to talk about illegal immigration, but that’s what we’re most interested in."
GREG AHLEMANN worked under Sheriff Steve Simpson, as a Sheriff’s Office deputy, for ten years.
"I worked every shift in the smallest, busiest area of Loudoun County, Sterling Park," Ahlemann said.
While patrolling the side streets of Sterling Boulevard in the late 1990s, Ahlemann said he began to notice problems with gangs in that area, but the Sheriff’s Office did not want to talk about it. Since then, he said the problem has only gotten worse.
"We’re on the frontline here, people," he said. "We need to take a proactive direction to the gang problem."
In 2003, Sheriff Steve Simpson worked with U.S. Rep. Frank Wolf (R-10) to tackle the gang problem in Loudoun County and Northern Virginia.
Ahlemann said he was too late.
"We didn’t publicly admit we had a gang problem until 2003," Ahlemann said. "I worked in Sterling Park until 2001. I knew where the gang houses were. I knew it, and the residents knew it."
If elected, Ahlemann said he would tackle the gang problem by first tackling the illegal immigration issue in the county.
"Illegal immigration is directly tied in with gang activity," he said.
The way to combat this issue, he said, is through Immigration Customs Enforcement (ICE) training, also referred to as 287(g).
ICE is a voluntary program which provides local law enforcement training and the authority to identify, process, and, if necessary, detain immigration offenders they encounter while on duty.
"ICE training became available in 1996, Sheriff’s Simpson’s first year in office," he said. "He had 10 years to take this training on."
SIMPSON EXPLORED ICE training for his officers last year, but the Sheriff said the benefits of the training do not outweigh the strain on the county’s jails.
Simpson said he has met with ICE officers on a number of occasions to discuss the bill.
"It sounds great, but there’s a lot more to it than meets the eye," Simpson said. "There’s a lot more to 287(g)."
Simpson said he wanted to clear up the misconception that ICE training allows his officers to question immigration status of any man or woman on the street. ICE trained officers are only allowed to question the legal status of convicted criminals.
"This doesn’t just give us blanket authority to do whatever we want to do," he said. "They have to do time in our local jails."
Simpson joined the Northern Virginia Gang Task Force and created the local Gang Unit in 2003 to combat gang activity in the county and neighboring communities. The task force allows the Sheriff’s Office to learn and share information about gangs with other jurisdictions. The counties work as a team to crack down gang activity across the state.
"We have ICE agents assigned to that task force," Simpson said. "ICE picks them up from our jails within 24 to 48 hours."
If Sheriff’s Office deputies receive ICE training, Loudoun County will become a "depository for inmates," he said. The county would be obligated to house illegal immigrants in county jails until they are deported back to their country.
"I’d rather have them pick them up today and put them somewhere else," Simpson said. "We have a good working relationship with immigration."
Ahlemann said the number one advantage to ICE training is having access to a database of illegal criminals.
"If we don’t have access to the database, how do we know who’s here illegally?" he said. "We’re still policing the same way we were 30 years ago."
"ICE training is not a fix all," Simpson said. "This is a very critical time in Loudoun County. We need this experience. Now is not the time to change, simply for the sake of change."