In a dark parking lot earlier this month, Del. Alfonso H. Lopez tried to get to his car under a barrage of questions in English and Spanish.
“Do you admit to profiting from immigration detention centers? Yes or no?” a woman asks Lopez, a Democrat from Arlington County, in a Nov. 10 Facebook video posted by the Northern Virginia activist group La ColectiVa.
After voicing frustration over the group’s confrontational tactics, Lopez tried to explain that immigration policies under then-President Barack Obama were different than the system put in place by President Donald Trump.
“You guys don’t want any borders,” Lopez says to the activists recording him. “You don’t want any detention.”
After a wave election for Virginia Democrats fueled by energetic opposition to Trump, pro-immigrant activists made clear on election night that they weren’t ready to join in the celebrations, protesting at the victory party for Gov.-elect Ralph Northam over his opposition to “sanctuary city” policies.
But the pressure from the left has been even more acute for Lopez, the son of a Venezuelan immigrant and former president of the Democratic Latino Organization of Virginia, who describes himself as a champion for immigrant communities.
Activists have targeted Lopez over his financial ties to the privately run Immigration Centers of America detention facility in Farmville, billed as the largest facility of its kind in the Mid-Atlantic when it opened in 2010. The detention center works with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to house immigrants facing deportation.
Fear and anger over the Trump administration were a significant factor in the Nov. 7 election that saw Democrats sweep statewide races and flip 15 seats in the House of Delegates, wiping out what had been a 66-34 Republican majority. The protests directed at Lopez underscore the possibility that Democrats also could find themselves in the crosshairs of activist energy in the Trump era, particularly on the touchy issue of immigration enforcement.
The detention center was pitched as an economic boon to Farmville that would help immigration officials handle an uptick in the number of immigrants being detained for criminal charges. It’s also a frequent target of protests by those who see the facility as emblematic of an oppressive immigration enforcement system that ensnares upstanding people and criminals alike.
Lopez, a partner in two consulting firms that focus on business and government management, listed “ICA-Farmville” as an employer on his mandatory financial disclosure forms for 2014, 2015 and 2016. The detention center is not listed as an employer on Lopez’s paperwork for 2017.
State lawmakers are required to list any employers that pay them or a member of their immediate family more than $5,000 annually, but the forms don’t require a detailed explanation of what type of work lawmakers do or a full accounting of their earnings.
La ColectiVa and other activist groups want Lopez to apologize, redirect the money he earned to a bond fund for detained immigrants, and sever any remaining ties to the Farmville facility.
“Everyone knows him as the representative for the Latinx community in Virginia,” said Irma Corado, a 27-year-old activist with La ColectiVa. “To unveil this and uncover this, it was just like, really?”
In a statement, Lopez said he “filed all necessary documents and they have always been publicly available,” but he did not elaborate on his work for the Farmville facility. Pointing to his legislative record, Lopez said he has fought against legislation to ban sanctuary cities, bills to prevent local law enforcement from releasing undocumented immigrants under ICE detainers, and any other efforts to “demonize immigrants.”
“Let me be clear, I am proud of my heritage and I’m proud of my record of achievement at the forefront of the fight for a more inclusive, diverse and welcoming commonwealth,” Lopez said. “My work on behalf of immigrants and New Americans in the Virginia House of Delegates over the last six years reflects that truth.”
Officials at the Farmville detention center did not respond to requests for comment.
In addition to the face-to-face confrontations and a protest at Lopez’s own victory party on election night, activists and student groups have launched an email campaign asking the House Democratic Caucus to deny Lopez a leadership role. Since 2015, Lopez has served as minority whip, helping to shape Democratic strategy and voting on the House floor.
With recounts pending in several close races after the election this month, House Democrats have not yet chosen their leaders for the 2018 session. The arrival of 15 Democratic freshmen, some of whom don’t feel particularly beholden to party leaders, could make for a bumpier discussion about who should lead the newly invigorated caucus.
“How can we trust Delegate Lopez to fight for our community if he has not been transparent with us for so many years?” the Mason DREAMers group at George Mason University wrote in a letter to Democratic delegates asking for Lopez to “not be included in the new leadership.”
Jessica Moreno Caycho, the 22-year-old vice president of the Virginia Commonwealth University chapter of the student group PLUMAS, or Political Latinxs United for Movement in Action and Society, said she and other activists will continue to press Lopez for an explanation and “keep fighting” for their communities no matter who’s in charge.