Like most of his peers in the senior class at Wakefield High School, Fanuel Gebremedhim is anxiously awaiting to see where he will be in the fall.
Yet Gebremedhim’s fate lays not in the hands of college admissions staff throughout the state, but with the members of Virginia’s General Assembly in Richmond.
Though Gebremedhim, who emigrated from Ethiopia to Arlington five years ago, posses a social security card, his official residency status is still pending. He expects to receive his papers next year, but may be barred from continuing his education this fall after two bills limiting illegal immigrants’ access to state colleges and universities passed the House of Delegates last week.
The House approved H.B. 262, which forbids state schools from accepting undocumented students, by a vote of 67 to 33. It would make Virginia the first state in the country to have such a law . In a 76-23 vote, delegates passed H.B. 1050, which prohibits undocumented residents from receiving in-state tuition.
The two bills face a much tougher test in the more moderate Senate, where similar legislation has died in past years. If they pass the Senate, Gov. Timothy Kaine (D) can sign or veto the measures.
The bills are part of a broader package of legislation that Republican members of the General Assembly have introduced this session that would curtail the rights of undocumented immigrants, including allowing state police to enforce immigration laws and requiring that all driver’s license tests be conducted in English.
Many Democrats and Latino community leaders, including more than 30 Arlington Latino activists who traveled to Richmond last Wednesday to lobby against the bills, claim they are overly restrictive and would harm both the immigrant community and the general population.
“The great concern we have is the fact that the legislators are using our community as a scapegoat,” Beatriz Amberman, founder of the Hispanic Community Dialogue in Hampton Road, said in a press conference held by the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO) and the American Jewish Committee. “…There’s a sentiment of aggression toward our community and it’s breeding resentment.”
NO BILL HAS RAISED the ire of the state’s Latinos as much as the measure forbidding undocumented students from attending state colleges and universities, which opponents say will discourage them from succeeding in high school.
“Our youngsters are playing by the rules, taking the tests and passing them and earning the opportunity for college,” said County Board member Walter Tejada, who traveled to Richmond to meet with senators and delegates. “But youngsters who hear about what’s going on [may not] finish school.
Staring out the window of a chartered bus as it rolls through the gritty streets of Richmond, Gebremedhim’s voice rises as he discussed his predicament. It is “unfair,” he said, that he may be denied admission to college because of his immigration status while a native-born student with worse grades and qualifications will be accepted.
“I’m locked out of the American dream,” said Gebremedhim, who is currently enrolled in AP math and government classes at Wakefield. “How does preventing people from exploring their hopes and dreams benefit Virginia?”
Others worry about the unintended consequences of the bill, if it becomes law. Luis Parada, a lawyer, believes that some students who are here legally might accidentally be barred from state schools because college admissions officials do not have the expertise necessary to decipher complex immigration rules.
Bills restricting services to undocumented immigrants are not new to the General Assembly, with lawmakers limiting access to Medicaid and other benefits last session. Immigration became a contentious issue in November’s election, following the opening of a controversial day-laborer center in Herndon.
Arlington Latino community leaders, who met with 17 legislators and the aides of 20 other lawmakers last week, said that Virginia owes a debt of gratitude to its immigrants, who have been the motor of the state’s economy in recent years by bolstering the farming and services industries.
“We are a hard-working group that wants to have a decent job, pay our bills and send our kids to schools,” said Andres Tobar, chair of VACOLAO. “We are no different than other immigrant groups that have come before us.”
AN ARRAY OF additional bills that would curb the number of government resources available to illegal immigrants has been introduced this year. To the relief of Latinos, a measure that would effectively end the use of public funds for day-laborer centers was pulled by its author last month.
House Bill 287, similar to a measure defeated last year, would require all driver’s license examinations be conducted in English without the aid of a translator.
This bill would have serious implications for the thousands of recent immigrants in Northern Virginia who have yet to gain proficiency in English. More than 50 immigrant workers from Manassas protested against the bill outside the General Assembly building last Wednesday.
Oscar Basquez, who moved from El Salvador to Manassas one year ago, said through a translator that this bill would have “bad consequences” and make it difficult for construction workers like him to get jobs if they cannot legally drive to them.
Non-English speakers are going to drive regardless of whether they have a license or not, Tejada said. By not allowing them to receive proper training, all the bill does is put every driver on the road at risk, he added.
Last Wednesday the House voted 77 to 22 in favor of a bill introduced by Jeff M. Frederick (R-Prince William) that would enable the governor to forge an agreement with federal officials allowing local police to enforce civil immigration laws. Alabama and Florida are currently the only states that grant such powers to local police.
Opponents have raised concerns that police departments do not contain the necessary manpower to take on such additional tasks.
Tejada said that such a measure would “alienate” the Latino community and stop them from reporting crimes and working together with police officers.