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Two Departments, Divergent Strategies

The two jurisdictions sit practically on top of one another. To the southeast, the Town of Herndon, one of the westernmost communities of Fairfax County. Sterling, its neighbor to the north, comprises the first of many communities moving west into Loudoun County.

The two communities share the same roadways, the same commercial centers, many of the same nonprofit resources and similar demographics.

But somewhere over the course of the last several months, the law-enforcement agencies of the two jurisdictions have begun to veer down very different paths when it comes to their strategies for policing and their relationship with a newly-arrived immigrant population — many of whom are believed to be illegally present.

In Herndon, a new mayor and Town Council took office after an election last spring, which focused on the issue of the perceived illegal immigrant presence in town. Subsequently the town has recently pursued and successfully entered into a relationship with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for some immigration enforcement privileges. The program, approved unanimously by the Town Council earlier this year, will see at least seven local police officers undergo training which, under certain circumstances, will allow them to initiate deportation proceedings on illegal immigrants convicted of serious crimes.

In Loudoun County, Sheriff Steve Simpson, under pressure from several of the same grassroots citizens' organizations that successfully lobbied Herndon's Town Council in support of the training and an increasing amount of gang-related violence, has rejected the training as ineffective given his agency's resources and the jurisdiction's criminal environment.

With Herndon's immigration enforcement training on the horizon and an election looming for Simpson, the results of the communities' conflicting strategies continue to raise debate among local politicians and community members.

LOUDOUN COUNTY SHERIFF Steve Simpson is standing his ground in his opposition to federal immigration enforcement authority for his department’s deputies.

After the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors, in October 2006, requested Simpson to explore 287 (g) training for his department, he returned to tell them that he could not endorse it as an effective crime-fighting tool in Loudoun, listing several reasons.

Primarily, Simpson said that he felt that the training would be a needless overlap of enforcement duties, as the Sheriff’s Office has a good working relationship with ICE and works with two ICE agents on a daily basis, he said. The agreement would also require Simpson to use Loudoun County jail space to house convicted criminal illegal immigrants as they await deportation, further stretching the resources of his department, he added.

"Currently, [ICE agents] pick them up within 24 to 48 hours," Simpson said. "We can accomplish all of the same things without having to house them in our jail."

Simpson pointed out approximately 130 criminals from Loudoun County are already housed in other jurisdictions right now because there is not enough room in the county jail.

"We have a current system in place that works for Loudoun," Simpson said. "We are doing the same thing Fairfax County does. Nobody’s making it an issue in Fairfax County because the police chief isn’t running for re-election this year."

JOSEPH BUDZINSKI disagrees with the sheriff and believes the training program is a good fit in the community. Budzinski, president of Help Save Loudoun, an offshoot of the grassroots organization Help Save Herndon, said he understands the sheriff’s points, but wants to send a message to illegal immigrants that they are not welcome in Loudoun County.

"Herndon is getting it. They’re going to have that reputation that Herndon is not a good place to go for illegal criminals," Budzinski said. "I think Loudoun should have that same reputation."

Still, Simpson said that his department continues to work regularly with federal authorities to pursue criminal illegal immigrants.

"To try and say we’re not addressing the issue, it’s just not true," Simpson said. "I’m not going to give in to political hype. I’m not going to give up doing what’s in the best interest of Loudoun County strictly for politics and that’s the bottom line."

LAURA VALLE, the president of La Voz of Loudoun, a nonprofit organization that assists immigrants in the process of integration, said she is concerned about a different message the program sends to the immigrant community in general.

While Valle said the program is "a reasonable one," given the long and complicated nature of the legal naturalization process, the immigration training might stoke unwarranted fears in the immigrant community of local authorities who are meant to protect them.

"It creates a sense of fear in general toward local law-enforcement officers and that’s not helpful from a community-policing point of view," Valle said.

The real problem needing a solution, Valle said, is security at the border of the United States and Mexico and the fact that most deportees attempt to re-enter the country.

"It’s a short-term, quick fix to a much bigger problem," Valle said. "They’ll be back, absolutely."

However, Budzinski wants police to send a message to illegal immigrants living in his Sterling neighborhood right now.

"The thing the sheriff doesn’t seem to be able to appreciate is ICE [training] sends a message that the county is serious about criminal illegal aliens," Budzinski said.

SINCE LAST SPRING'S Town Council elections, Herndon's new mayor Steve DeBenedittis and many of its council members, largely seen to have been elected on a ticket opposed to illegal immigration, have taken several steps perceived to target illegal immigrants living in town. As the centerpiece in this surge against illegal immigration is their March decision that made Herndon the first municipal law-enforcement agency in the country to enter into an agreement for federal immigration enforcement authority with ICE.

Under the signed agreement, at least seven Herndon police officers, after undergoing the training, will be able to initiate deportation proceedings on criminals convicted of felonies and driving while intoxicated who are also found to be in the country illegally. While the agreement has been signed by both agencies, a date for training has not yet been set.

For Herndon Police Chief Toussaint Summers, who supported the training along with the council, the immigration authority is another enforcement tool that officers can use to respond to certain law-enforcement challenges in the community.

"Some departments carry mace, some carry blackjacks, some carry firearms," Summers said. "We just see that Herndon has reached a point where we can utilize this training and improve the efficiency of our enforcement duties."

The biggest boon in the training will be in the increased relations between local police and ICE authorities to tackle local issues, he added. Previously, Herndon officers only corresponded with ICE two to three times a month.

BUT TOO MUCH "gray area" may exist in the immigrant community for such a program to operate effectively and justly in the Town of Herndon and its surrounding areas, said Jeanne Smoot, director of public policy for the Fairfax-based Tahirih Justice Center.

A legal services agency that works with immigrant survivors of domestic assault and sexual abuse, the Tahirih Justice Center regularly sees instances where victims can quickly and inadvertently become the target of investigations into immigration status as a result of the training, Smoot said. It may also give rise to fear in reporting crimes to police in the immigrant community, causing victimization to persist, she added.

"It's not hard to see therefore why the immigrant community is alarmed as to what this will all actually mean in practice," said Smoot in an e-mail. There are not enough efforts being made by the Town of Herndon "to reassure those who desperately need police protection from perpetrators," that they will not be the targets of immigration scrutiny, she added.

Still, the large numbers of illegal immigrants suspected of living in Herndon and its surrounding area is reason enough to justify the training as a necessity for local law enforcement to do their job properly, said Aubrey Stokes, a founding member of Help Save Herndon. After successfully lobbying for the training in Herndon, Stokes and his grassroots organization have also been actively supporting it for Loudoun County deputies as well, he said.

The ICE training "is not designed to solve all the problems of illegal immigration, but what it does is allow the local police to address the effects of illegal alien criminals," Stokes said. "If you have to deal with a large community of illegal aliens, it makes sense to have the tools to address and operate effectively within that community."

SUMMERS IS QUICK to note that while his department and ICE have entered into an agreement, its effectiveness in relation to policing efforts will take time to determine.

"It still remains to be seen if it will have a noticeable impact on public safety," he said. "We're going to have to wait and see some of the numbers and we'll be able to form a better picture at that time."

But the enforcement training should not be considered a magic bullet for the crime problems of Herndon, Summers added.

"Obviously that could be in the minds of some in the community," he said, "but I don't think being an illegal immigrant means that you're a violent criminal or that you're more likely to be cited for a violation."

"It's just that there are occasions in the course of our duties where we need to work with ICE and having this training makes that process more efficient."