Congress provided $2.5 million for anti-gang efforts. Among the several hundred gangs in the area, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), with roots in the Salvadoran community, is considered the largest and most violent. Emerging in Los Angeles in the 1980s, MS-13 has recently spread to northern Virginia, where there are an estimated 2,000 gang members.11 In response to this, in 2004 the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation that made it a misdemeanor for anyone of any age to recruit or coerce someone into becoming a gang member. The new law also provides that three gang convictions within 10 years is now a felony, carrying a prison term of 5 to 20 years. The complex social and law enforcement issue of youth gang activity has been largely portrayed as an exclusively Latino and Asian phenomenon, which has contributed to increased ethnic and racial profiling of Latino youth.
The collective perception of heightened vulnerability after September 11, 2001, together with the rise in youth gang activity and generalized anti-immigrant backlash, has recently led a few northern Virginia local agencies to apply for participation in a federal training program offered by the Department of Homeland Security Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (DHS/BICE). Although in existence since 1996, when Congress passed the Illegal Immigration Reform and Responsibility Act (IIRIRA), the training program, known as 287(g), would train local police officers to enforce U.S. immigration law, including the initiation of deportation proceedings. Although participation in this program would give local police an additional tool to fight gang activity and terrorism, the cost of turning state police into immigration officers might far outweigh the law enforcement benefits because such measure would erode any existing trust between officers and the migrant community.
Yet, as the immigration debate becomes more politically contentious, interest in the program has grown across the state. In northern Virginia, cities such as Herndon, Manassas, and Loudoun have expressed interest in participating in the program. This has created fear in Virginia Latinos, who are concerned and confused about the limits of power the program will vest upon participating officers. Although trained agents would only be allowed to target undocumented migrants involved in criminal activity, Latino advocacy groups and community leaders have expressed serious concerns about potential abuses in profiling and misuse of police power. Equally important is the inadequate number of Spanish-speaking police officers across the local agencies, which would further deteriorate the precarious situation of many Virginia Latinos unable to adequately fend for themselves if mistakenly profiled.
Those developments notwithstanding, Virginia Latinos have found collective mechanisms to resist the political backlash, becoming mobilized through a variety of organizations that actively oppose immigrant-demonizing legislation. In 2002, some 29 Latino and Latino-supportive organizations came together to
advocate for Latino interests through the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO). In July 2003 Governor Mark R. Warner appointed the Virginia Latino Advisory Committee (VLAC) to serve as an advisory body on issues facing Latino constituents and to advocate for Latino interests. Legally a board since October 2005, the VLAB meets four times a year to hear from local communities across the state, discuss issues facing Latinos in the commonwealth, and develop reports articulating their recommendations to the governor on matters such as health, business, and education. The board consists of 21 citizen-members appointed by the governor, 15 of whom must be of Latino descent.
In the spring of 2006, Virginia Latinos joined hundreds of others demanding amnesty at the National Mall rallies. Among community leaders and legislators, Father Hoyos, director of the Arlington Diocese’s Spanish Apostolate, marshaled and inspired protesters. Most recently, on February 5, 2007, VACOLAO gathered Latinos from around the state including elected officials, business leaders, and ordinary working people to lobby at the Virginia General Assembly, calling for justice and respect for migrants’ human rights. Part of a larger four-day event called Journey for Immigrant Justice, this mobilization featured rallies, a protest march, news conferences, and an ecumenical event to spotlight concerns about the record number of anti-immigrant bills introduced in 2007.
Likewise, in an unprecedented move, day laborer organizers have joined forces with nonprofit groups in the area to advocate for migrant workers’ rights. In Herndon, Project Hope and Harmony has partnered with Reston Interfaith to run the Herndon Official Workers Center, an open-air labor site on the Loudoun-Fairfax county line, in what was once a police station. Most recently, the American Federation of Labor (AFL-CIO) has aligned with a national network of day laborer organizers, the National Day Labor Organizing Network (NDLON), to push for workers’ rights and legalization for undocumented workers. Alexandria-headquartered Tenants and Workers United and the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, with offices in Charlottesville and northern Virginia, are part of the 30-day-laborer centers and organizers under NDLON.