Arlington Latino leaders and Democratic politicians denounced a set of bills Republican members of the House of Delegates plan to introduce in the upcoming legislative session that would curtail the rights of illegal immigrants.
At a press conference last Tuesday, County Board Member Walter Tejada (D) and other leaders of Northern Virginia’s Latino community criticized the proposed legislation, which included a bill that would ban publicly funded day-laborer centers. The Republican plan is a ploy to exploit voters’ fears of illegal immigration in the final days of the campaign season, they said.
Instead of passing restrictive laws that harm both the immigrant community and the general population, the state’s politicians need to “see what we can do to make life more decent and fair for immigrants,” said Tejada, who came to the United States from El Salvador when he was 13 years old.
“I’m tired of the negative portrayal of the immigrant community and instead I want to highlight the positive contributions they have made,” Tejada said.
Immigration became a contentious campaign issue in the days leading up to Tuesday’s election, with Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore running campaign ads emphasizing his commitment to cracking down on those who enter the county illegally. There are an estimated 200,000 illegal immigrants living in Virginia.
In recent years the Republican-led General Assembly has voted to prohibit illegal immigrants from obtaining driver's licenses or receiving public benefits, including food stamps.
A group of Republican delegates, led by House Speaker William J. Howell and David B. Albo (R-42), presented an array of bills last week that would curb government resources available to undocumented immigrants.
“Illegal immigrants are breaking the bank,” said Albo, asserting they were costing taxpayers upwards of $125 million a year in Fairfax County alone. “We need to discourage the lawbreakers.”
One bill would forbid publicly-funded day-labor work centers, like the Shirlington Employment and Education Center and a similar site that is planned for Herndon earlier — unless the centers require proof of legal residency.
Albo said the Arlington center was already illegal because of a bill passed last year that restricts illegal immigrant’s access to services.
The Republican lawmakers intend to re-introduce legislation that would bar illegal immigrants from attending state universities and colleges, or at least require them to pay out-of-state tuition. Other planned bills include “scrubbing” Virginia’s voter roll to prevent undocumented workers from voting, fining businesses for employing illegal immigrants and granting law enforcement officials the authority to charge illegal immigrants with trespassing.
Democratic politicians condemned the planned legislation and said it would exacerbate bigotry in the state.
“For a group of politicians to play the ‘immigrant card’ with the intention of dividing people rather than bringing them together is reprehensible,” said Del. Al Eisenberg (D-47).
Though participants at the Arlington press conference, held at Our Lady Queen of Peace Church, said the event was non-partisan, several of those who spoke decried politicians who were using the theme of immigration as a “wedge issue” to win votes.
“There are some politicians who prey on people’s fears and try to exploit the worst images of the immigrant community for electoral gains,” said Christian Dorsey, executive director of the Bonder & Amanda Johnson Community Development Corporation, who did not name any lawmakers directly.
Many of those in attendance harshly criticized the bill to deny students who are in the country illegally access to the state’s system of higher education.
“Students have a right to education in our schools,” said Andres Tobar, co-chair of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations. “These laws try to shut the door of opportunity.”
Latino immigrants come to the United States to find work and provide a better future for their families, just as generations of other immigrants have done in the past, those speaking at the press conference said.
Immigrants form the “backbone” of the local economy by taking many of the essential jobs — such as cooks, janitors and cleaners — that enable Northern Virginia to function, Tejada said.
“If immigrants hadn’t stepped forward to take these jobs, Virginia wouldn’t be thriving,” Tejada added.
Democratic leaders said much of the public’s concerns over immigration are based on the misconception that illegal immigrants take advantage of valuable government resources. In reality, undocumented workers are not eligible for most benefit programs even though they are paying sales and other government taxes, said Chris Zimmerman, the county board’s vice chairman.
Tejada and Tobar said they would urge lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to reject the planned legislation and work to change the tenor of the immigration debate.
“Richmond should stay out of local decisions,” Tejada said. “We know our communities better than they do.”
<1b>Reporter Brian McNeill contributed to this article.