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Some members of the Virginia State Police could enforce immigration laws and play a role in the deportation of illegal aliens if federal officials grant a request for that authority from Gov. Bob McDonnell.
McDonnell announced last Thursday that he has formally asked the Department of Homeland Security for a 287(g) agreement, named for a section of federal law that permits some immigration powers to be given to state and local police departments.
Under that program, certain officers from approved law enforcement agencies receive four weeks of federal instruction on identifying illegal immigrants, cultural sensitivity, avoiding racial profiling, immigration laws and using a federal immigration database.
They can then use the database to identify and report illegal immigrants for possible deportation.
It's unclear when federal officials will reach a decision and what expanded police powers they might grant.
In his Aug. 10 request, the governor referred to "addressing those aliens who are engaged in major drug offenses or violent offenses such as murder, manslaughter, rape, robbery and kidnapping, as well as DUI offenses."
When asked for more specifics, a McDonnell aide said the range of enforcement powers will depend on terms of any agreement between state and federal officials.
A spokesman for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) declined to discuss McDonnell's application.
In Virginia, eight local law enforcement agencies and one regional jail in Northern Virginia and the Shenandoah Valley have entered into agreements with federal officials to perform immigration duties, according to ICE.
Those partnerships have resulted in the removal of more than 1,950 illegal immigrants since 2007, ICE spokesman Richard Rocha said, adding that, nationwide, such agreements have led to the removal of nearly 120,000 people.
McDonnell's letter has the potential to further ignite a local immigration debate that has ebbed and flowed over the years.
The move drew praise Thursday from John Kwapisz of the Virginia Council for Immigration Reform as a "long overdue" effort to enhance public safety.
Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist who has worked on immigration issues, disagreed, calling it an unnecessary step that could further strain the limited resources of State Police.
If 287(g) authority is granted, she said, she hopes the agreement will include language protecting crime victims and witnesses from routine inquiries about their immigration status.
Under current state law, officials must check immigration status when people are taken into custody.
Obtaining federal immigration authority for State Police is something McDonnell has supported since he was attorney general. But his predecessor as governor, Democrat Timothy M. Kaine, was lukewarm about the idea.