Republicans Stage Blitz at Board Meeting
Officials, Activists Question Policies on Illegal Immigrants

By Kirstin Downey
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 9, 2007; Page C06

The immigration debate broiling across Virginia came to the Democratic enclave of Arlington County yesterday as local Republican party officials and activists peppered county board members with questions about how they are handling illegal immigrants.

The questions mirrored concerns voiced elsewhere -- crime, a day-laborer center and housing -- and arose at the public comment session of a board meeting in which immigration issues had not been on the public-discussion agenda.

Rafael Bejar, chairman of the Arlington County Republican Committee, asked whether county police policy is too lax in referring suspected felons or violent criminals to federal immigration officials.

Bob Atkins, the party's treasurer, asked how many illegal immigrants are in county jails and whether officials have applied for federal funds to help house them.

John Antonelli, a Republican who served on the county's affordable-housing advisory commission, said the nonprofit groups that run county-backed affordable-housing complexes permit illegal immigrants to live there and sometimes turn legal residents away. He also said a day-laborer center in South Arlington should ensure that workers who use it are here legally and that their employers pay taxes and abide by employment laws.

"Arlington must recognize that immigration offenses are not just a federal responsibility," Antonelli said. "They are everyone's responsibility."

Board members, all of whom are Democrats in one of the state's most liberal localities, defended their policies and accused the Republicans of playing partisan politics in raising the topic.

Board Vice Chairman J. Walter Tejada said the county is committed to keeping people safe.

"Nobody is defending the criminals," Tejada said, adding that hasty action to change policies concerning immigrants could create negative side effects. Changing policies at the day-laborer center, for example, a step Herndon took after fierce debate over the issue, caused legal problems and "could be chaotic," said Tejada, who is running for reelection.

Republicans said they are asking not for immediate changes, but for debate over how to handle illegal immigrants, some of whom are creating "public safety" concerns, the speakers said.

About five weeks ago, an illegal immigrant was sentenced to three life terms and 20 years for the rape of a 42-year-old Arlington woman. She was attacked by the man, a Salvadoran, as she walked along the Four Mile Run bike path.

"We just want a review, given the national situation," said Bejar, a Cuban American who said that police officers should be required to report immigrants suspected of felonies or violent crimes to federal immigration officials but that in Arlington it is only a "recommended" action. Atkins said he has been told that the county jailed at least 789 illegal immigrants, including some for felonies, in 2006.

After the meeting, board member Barbara A. Favola said she did not consider the questions part of "a healthy conversation." She said county officials "follow all the legal requirements."

Republicans have been trying to gain ground for their candidates in a county that has grown increasingly Democratic in recent years. Republicans Michael T. McMenamin and Joseph J. Warren are running this fall to replace Tejada and win the seat of board Chairman Paul Ferguson, who is running for clerk of the court. Joshua F. Ruebner of the Green Party is also on the ballot.

"This isn't about policy," board member Chris Zimmerman said.

After the public meeting, however, the board convened a closed-door session to discuss "legal requirements applicable to the county with respect to immigration status of persons in the county," according to the board's agenda. ... 01562.html