Kaine, other Democrats still looking for answers on immigration arrests

ALEXANDRIA, Va. (AP) -- Nearly a month after at least two people were arrested by immigration officers outside a northern Virginia church, Democratic lawmakers from across the country say they are still seeking answers about what happened.

The Feb. 8 arrests across the street from the Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria, which doubles as a soup kitchen and cold weather shelter, struck a nerve because critics say it targets vulnerable immigrants who need emergency services. They say it also violates Immigration and Customs Enforcement's own policy prohibiting enforcement actions at sensitive locations such as churches, schools and hospitals.

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At a news conference Thursday, critics including Virginia senator and former Democratic vice presidential nominee Tim Kaine said the Trump administration's reassurances that it continues to follow the policy protecting sensitive locations ring hollow in light of the arrests at Rising Hope.

"We are hearing some words, but the words aren't matching up with what people are seeing," Kaine said.

Nicholas Marritz, a lawyer with the Legal Aid Justice Center, said efforts to learn the identities of those arrested or other details about the enforcement action were rebuffed when he and other activists went to ICE regional offices seeking answers.

"They told us, 'We're not going to give you their names, we're not going to meet with you, and please leave,'" Marritz said.

ICE officials have said their policies were followed in the Alexandria arrests, which occurred in a shopping center across the street from the church. An ICE official says only two people were arrested, though witnesses say they saw as many as six people taken away.

In a statement Thursday, ICE said it "conducts targeted immigration enforcement in compliance with federal law and agency policy."

"ICE does not conduct sweeps or raids that target aliens indiscriminately," the statement said. "The ICE sensitive locations policy ... provides that enforcement actions at sensitive locations should generally be avoided. ... DHS is committed to ensuring that people seeking to participate in activities or utilize services provided at any sensitive location are free to do so without fear or hesitation."

Rep. Linda Sanchez, D-California, vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus, said "rogue agents are getting cute with the rules" because they feel emboldened to do so by President Donald Trump's harsh rhetoric against immigrants. She also said the administration's recent executive order greatly expands who can be considered a criminal alien and thus a top priority for arrest and deportation.

Democratic Rep. Don Beyer, whose district includes the church, decried "scorched-earth tactics" of the Trump administration.

"Make no mistake about what our new President Trump is up to," Beyer said. "The new policies of the Trump administration exist to incite fear."

The church's pastor, Keary Kincannon, said there was a slight dropoff in people seeking services after the arrests. But he said the dropoff was minimal because the services they are seeking, including food and shelter, are so critical that people are willing to take the risk. The church provides more than 20 beds a night to people during cold-weather months, and the soup kitchen provides 180 meals a week, Kincannon said.

Still, he said the fear is palpable. He related the story of a Hispanic woman and U.S. citizen who has resorted to carrying her birth certificate with her.

"She is afraid of being picked up and arrested," he said.