Local lawmakers and county officials voiced strong opposition to proposed legislation in Richmond aimed at immigrants. As the 45-day short session of the House and Senate drew to a close this weekend, several such bills survived.
"We're tired of politicians using immigrants as a scapegoat," said County Board member Walter Tejada, a longtime advocate for the rights of immigrants and Latinos in Arlington. "You have to question the real motives behind these bills because what they do is perpetuate a phobia, the anti-immigrant sentiment, in Virginia. As a constituency that cannot vote, they are an easy target."
A Senate committee voted Feb. 17 to pass by a bill put forth by Del. Thomas Gear (R-91st) that would have banned illegal immigrants from attending state-funded colleges and universities. A bill from Del. Kathy Byron (R-22nd) to tighten regulations on medical benefits for illegal immigrants seeking worker's compensation passed the House but died in the Senate. State benefits were also the subject of a bill from Del. David Albo (R-42nd) to deny Medicaid to anyone who is not a citizen of the United States. That bill was rejected by the House Feb. 24 but was passed by a Senate conference committee Feb. 26 and has gone to the governor for his signature.
Illegal immigrants, according to Albo, are an untold drain on Medicaid and other public funds.
"Nobody knows how much money is being spent supporting illegal aliens because nobody ever asks," Albo said last week from his office in Richmond. "When a person comes to apply for benefits, they might say that they are a U.S. citizen, but no one ever tries to confirm that. Nobody even knows how many illegal immigrants there are in Virginia."
Albo pointed to legislation passed in 2004 that prevents illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses. In the first year that law was enacted, he said, 187,000 people were turned away from state motor vehicle offices.
"Let's take a conservative estimate and say that only 1 percent of those people who got turned away are illegal immigrants," Albo said. "That makes about 1,800 people. If the experience is the same with public benefits, we're looking at a huge savings for taxpayers."
YET MANY local leaders think otherwise. A recent study conducted in 2003 by the state's Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC), a government oversight office, Tejada said, indicates that immigrants are not an undue burden on programs like Medicaid.
"In general, JLARC staff found that the foreign-born do not use state services at a disproportionate rate," the study states. "Usage levels, in fact, are lower than might be expected, in part due to federal limitations on program participation. For example, non-citizens’ usage of major social-services-benefit programs is negligible. It is estimated that payments for non-citizen Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) cases were $1.4 million out of a total $97 million for FY ‘03. Additionally, non-citizen utilization of Medicaid and the Family Access to Medical Insurance Security (FAMIS) program is minimal. Data provided by the Department of Medical Assistance Services indicated that payments made to non-citizen foreign-born residents comprised only 2 percent of the total Medicaid payments made in 2002."
The study, Tejada said, disproves the notion that immigrants take more in state aid than other segments of the population.
"These are facts that the people pushing for these bills have seen fit to ignore," he said.
Immigrants, the study reveals, account for about 12 percent of the state's labor force and 44 percent of its labor force growth over the past decade. Most work in the food service and construction industries. Although it states that the burden on state funding is minimal, the study also shows that local governments are compelled to pay other significant costs associated with immigrants.
"For example, the Loudoun County Health Department reported spending approximately $52,000 to $54,000 per year on interpreter and translator services for its clients," the study states. "Arlington County’s total K-12 English as a Second Language (ESL) program cost for FY ‘02 was approximately $14 million, with $1 million coming from the state and federal governments. Additionally, the Fairfax County school system reported that its total K-12 ESL budget increased from $24.3 million in FY ‘98 to $54.1 million in FY ‘04 (a 123-percent increase). The federal and state governments provided only $4.5 million of the Fairfax ESL budget in FY ‘03."
GEAR FAILED to respond to numerous requests for an interview on his bill banning illegal immigrants from state colleges and universities. The proposed law is too far-reaching, according to Tejada, because it would also apply to immigrant students who are waiting for an answer from federal authorities on the status of citizenship or asylum applications. These students live within the United States legally, yet they are not official citizens. Brian Marroquin, a Guatemalan-born student who graduated in 2003 from Washington-Lee High School, in 2004, had waited 14 years for that answer when similar regulations prevented him from entering one of the five state institutions that accepted him based on his college applications. The law denied Marroquin status as a legal resident of the commonwealth, barring him from the chance to pay in-state tuition when he could not afford to pay the much higher out-of-state cost. At least three other Arlington students — including two recent high-school valedictorians— have faced similar problems, according to Arlington Public Schools superintendent Robert Smith.
"Our perspective is that these are our kids," said Smith. "We ought to be taking pride in them."
Gear's bill, he added, could have a "dampening effect" on foreign-born students in Arlington, potentially causing them to lose hope of further academic advancement and the motivation to study in high school.
"Many of these kids are ready and willing to go to college," he said. "If this bill were to pass, and I don't think it will, a lot of them would be watching friends go on to higher education while they stayed behind."
Denying a college education to such students, according to Tejada, could have other symptoms like an increase in gang violence.
"These bills tell immigrant kids they are unwanted and will be excluded in this state," Tejada said. "These are the bad messages that are being promoted with this type of anti-immigrant legislation.
When students are looking at a situation in which all of their friends can go to college and they can't, some of these kids are going to think, 'Maybe I'll just join a gang. They'll accept me'. We have to deny gangs their recruiting grounds."
Smith said Arlington schools do not inquire about a student's citizenship status, and there is no official number on how many immigrant students are in the school district's classrooms.
"But the number is fairly substantial," he said.
ARLINGTON MADE defending the rights of immigrants to receive public services and to attend state institutions part of its legislative agenda in December. Since then, Tejada and other local officials have closely monitored bills targeting immigrants and proposed bills through local state representatives to counteract them. Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47th) put forth a bill that would allow asylum seekers like Marroquin the ability to attend state educational institutions at the in-state tuition rate.
"There are laws that are supposed to deal with illegal immigration, and I don't oppose that," Eisenberg said. "But, the way you determine a person's immigration status can be confusing."
Eisenberg warned that Albo's bill, denying state benefits to illegal immigrants, could also have adverse effects on the state's homeless population, an estimated 33 percent of whom are veterans, when they request medical help or other state services.
"Most of them don't carry identification," he said. "Unless you can prove who you are, you can't prove that you are a citizen, and you won't be allowed to receive assistance."
A bill introduced by Del. Adam Ebbin (D-49th) would begin a study to explore the possibility of establishing a new state driver's license for drivers who cannot prove legal residence in the United States.
Byron failed to respond to requests for an interview on her bill, designed to deny worker's compensation to illegal immigrants.
"If a worker died on the job, and he happened to be an immigrant, his family wouldn't even be able to get the money to transport his body away from the construction site," Tejada said.