An Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid at a mission church in Alexandria. A bomb threat at a Jewish Day School in Fairfax. A threatening letter sent to a mosque in Falls Church.
In the past month, threats and attacks against minority communities have sprung up across Northern Virginia, mirroring a nationwide rise in hate crimes and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, commonly known as ICE, raids that have stoked fear and anxiety with religious minorities and undocumented immigrants throughout the country.
Virginia officials and local faith leaders, alarmed by the growing threats and provocations toward their constituents, held press conferences last week at the Rising Hope Mission Church in Alexandria and the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax to stand in solidarity behind these vulnerable communities.
Last Thursday’s event at Rising Hope came in response to a Feb. 8 raid by ICE agents outside the church in which six Latino men were reportedly interrogated, handcuffed and taken away in vans.
Under the Trump administration’s new executive order, ICE agents have arrested more than 680 immigrants across the country between Feb. 7 – 14, according to the Department of Homeland Security.
The Rising Hope raid — outside a church that doubles as a hypothermia shelter in the winter, as well as a soup kitchen and food pantry for the homeless — has called into question ICE’s “sensitive location” policy, which demands that arrests not take place at churches, schools, or medical facilities. Agents reportedly waited until the men had crossed the street before surrounding them.
“When ICE swooped in on the people leaving here, this was an attack on the practice of our faith, the practice of our religion,” Rising Hope Reverend Keary Kincannon said. “Because this is what our faith teaches us to do — to help those in need, without regard to their background, without regard to their immigrant status, anymore than regard to their political affiliation.”
The press conference Thursday brought in a slew of prominent Democratic politicians, including Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA); Rep. Donald Beyer Jr. (D-VA), who represents the City of Falls Church; Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM), chairwoman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus; and Linda Sánchez (D-CA), vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus.
The speakers expressed a shared sentiment that the Trump administration’s new crackdown on undocumented immigrants has incited debilitating fear in their communities.
“During the address to Congress the other night, the president purported, in a very false way, the notion that immigrants are more likely to commit crimes,” Kaine said. “Immigrants actually commit fewer crimes and they’re more victimized by crimes than the norm. Because of that, they need to feel comfortable interacting with our law enforcement professionals. If you do things that make our immigrant communities afraid, the entire community is not safe.”
The fear and disruption caused by ICE raids such as the one at Rising Hope extends beyond just immigrant families, said Nicholas Marritz, an attorney with the Legal Aid and Justice Center, an organization that provides legal representation for low-income individuals in Virginia.
“I’ve been working with undocumented people as an attorney for five years and this is by far the most serious level of community fear that I’ve ever seen,” Marritz said. “But this community of fear doesn’t just affect immigrants — that’s something I really want to emphasize. It affects everyone. U.S. citizen teachers are really upset because their students are afraid to come to school. Pastors are wondering where their congregants are. Businesses are wondering where their customers are. Bosses are wondering where their workers are.
“It’s just really shameful.”
A similar sense of anxiety has also arisen in Jewish communities around the region as Virginia confronts a rise in hate crimes and increased threats towards religious minorities.
The press conference last Friday at the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia in Fairfax was organized after a recent bomb threat targeting the Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax.
This scare came amid a wave of bomb threats to Jewish schools and community centers across the country over the past three months.
According to the Anti Defamation League, 110 Jewish institutions across 36 states have received bomb threats since January.
Speakers at Friday’s event included Rep. Donald Beyer Jr., Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-VA) and Barbara Comstock (R-VA), Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring (D-VA), Virginia Senate Minority Leader Dick Saslaw (D-VA), as well as leaders from the Jewish community and the region’s top law enforcement officials.
“We seem to be living in a time when it’s okay to be hateful,” Beyer said. “Those of us who are not Jews need to lift up, help, and stand in support of our Jewish friends.”
Attorney General Mark Herring noted that hate crimes are on the rise in Virginia, up 21 percent in 2015 (statistics for 2016 are still being compiled). According to data from the Virginia State Police, anti-Semitic acts are the most common hate crimes motivated by religion in the commonwealth.
Jewish Americans have not been the lone group to see a spike in crimes committed against them. Attacks against Muslim Americans nationwide increased by 67 percent in 2015, per FBI data.
On Feb. 28, the Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center in Falls Church received a threatening letter that reportedly had a foreign postmark and the phrase “kill all Muslims,” along with an image of a pig defecating on a mosque.
The Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), the nation’s largest Muslim civil rights and advocacy organization, last week called on state and federal law enforcement authorities to investigate the letter as a possible hate crime.
“We’ve got to stop,” Herring said. “We’ve got to come together as a commonwealth and say that hate has no place here. We need to recognize this as a serious crime, investigate it, and stand together as a community.”
In January, Herring proposed a legislative package aimed expanding the definition of hate crime to include offenses against people based on disability, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, as well as a new set of bills that would empower the attorney general’s office to use grand juries to prosecute hate crime.
In February, however, the Virginia General Assembly voted along party lines to table these measures.
“The rejection of these bills sends a terrible message at a time when communities in Virginia and around the country are confronting a rise in hate crimes and hateful rhetoric,” Herring said after the bills’ rejection. “If the people President Trump has surrounded himself with and the chaotic first few days of his administration are any indication, I have serious doubts that we’ll be able to rely on the Department of Justice to fight hate crimes in the way that we have for decades.”
Several of the speakers at the JCC echoed Thursday’s remarks at Rising Hope, saying that the onus is on the Trump administration to combat these threats.
“[Trump] really has empowered a lot of racism and anti-semitism, homophobia and xenophobia across the country,” Beyer said. “Putting Steve Bannon, a white supremacist, alt-right leader in the White House; Jeff Sessions, certainly racist earlier in his career as attorney general, and some of the things that candidate Trump said.”
Herring met with the president last week with a group of attorneys general from around the country. In response to a question about the wave of anti-semitism, there was “kind of a mixed signal,” he said.
“At one point, [Trump] said it was reprehensible, but then said there are groups operating in reverse, which was a really curious and bizarre thing to say.
“This is not a time for conspiracy theories,” Herring added. “It’s a time for elected officials, and that goes all the way to the president, to stand strong and unequivocally denounce this kind of anti-semitism and hate.”