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Local Advocacy Groups Sound Off in Richmond

Illegal immigration highlighted as two sides converge on General Assembly.

As the General Assembly mulls an avalanche of bills that would work to limit public and charitable services to U.S. citizens and further criminalize the presence of illegal immigrants in the Commonwealth, Herndon-based community advocacy efforts have gone into full swing in Richmond to push their agendas on both sides of the issue.

Those who support cutting any state funding that may make it to the hands of illegal immigrants gained ground on Jan. 30 as the House of Delegates voted in favor of a bill that limits the ability of charity organizations to provide services to otherwise ineligible people if those groups receive state grants. The proposal, sponsored by Manassas-based Del. Jackson Miller (R-50), aims directly at non-profit organizations that provide services to illegal immigrants. It passed 70-29.

Other bills being considered in the General Assembly include measures to eliminate in-state education benefits for non-U.S. residents, allowing local law enforcement to arrest illegal immigrants without evidence of a prior crime being committed, and the suspension of business licenses for employers found to be knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

At the same time, other proposals would make it a felony for a U.S. resident to harbor an illegal immigrant, bar children from attending public school until proof of U.S. citizenship is provided, and criminalize the physical presence of illegal immigrants in Virginia.

HOMEGROWN GROUPS Help Save Herndon, which opposed the establishment of a day labor site in Herndon, and the Virginia Muslim Political Action Committee (VMPAC) have been lobbying state officials relating to immigration since the assembly opened last month.

Last week, the Virginia State’s Attorneys Office made an official request of Gov. Tim Kaine (D) to permit Virginia State Police to enter into a partnership with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) that would allow for local enforcement of federal immigration law. Herndon is currently in the process of shaping an agreement with ICE for the same type of training.

"Things have been going very positively and I think this year that there are even more folks who are understanding the importance of these issues," said Phil Jones, a Herndon resident and member of Help Save Herndon. "I think that more of our politicians are realizing that this is not a race issue, it’s an issue about folks getting a little piece of their safety and homeland back."

"Quite simply, we want the politicians to realize that they represent the people of the United States, and illegal criminal aliens are not a part of that."

After Herndon’s local election last May where results were seen to be dramatically affected by the efforts of his organization, Help Save Herndon and its affiliate members from other localities in Northern Virginia have been taken much more seriously in Richmond, Jones said.

"I think what [the Herndon elections] did was let people know that this wasn’t just a passing issue, that people want a safer Herndon and a safer Virginia, and our politicians must address the growing problem of illegal aliens," he said.

Support of bills that would limit state grants to charity organizations from going to illegal immigrants and the removal of in-state tuition benefits are based on Help Save Herndon’s belief that the government "first has an obligation to its legal residents before it can start looking to help others."

WHILE JONES HAS been advocating in support of the bills that work to eliminate funds to illegal immigrants and increased state regulation and enforcement of federal immigration law, VMPAC president and Herndon resident Mukit Hossain has been lobbying against them. The group has already met with Gov. Kaine, state Sen. Janet Howell (D-32) and has plans to meet with Del. Tom Rust (R-86) in the coming weeks, Hossain said.

A concern that the state will go too far and inadvertently begin to violate the civil rights of all immigrants, regardless of legal status, has been his organization’s major motivating factor, he said.

"It is extremely dangerous to see this type of rhetoric and an atmosphere that is quickly become very hostile towards immigrants," Hossain said. "If all of a sudden police start asking every person they stop in Virginia for their passport or proof of citizenship … it will be a very short time until we start to see unlawful arrests and detainments."

Primarily, VMPAC has been opposing the immigration measures because they overstep the bounds of state enforcement and set what Hossain called a "dangerous precedent" in treating immigrants as criminals when they have broken no other law except for being in the country without proper documentation.

ONE OF VMPAC’s largest areas of concern is in the proposed ICE partnership with Virginia State Police, according to Hossain.

"We feel that the police have a mandate to protect and maintain the community, and if they are being converted to enforcers of federal immigration law, we will lose sight of that goal," he said. "Not to mention that there is a psychological worry that will pervade in all immigrants’ minds when it comes to police, even if you are legal."

Kaine appears to feel the same way. Last week he released a statement refusing to support the ICE partnership proposal, citing concerns of a rift between the immigrant community and law enforcement officials.

But to Jones and the members of Help Save Herndon lobbying in Richmond, the ICE training remains as a benchmark effort.

"To us, protecting the community and enforcing federal immigration laws go one in the same," Jones said. "The illegal alien problem in this town … and this state has forced our governments to devote more resources and attention to this serious problem."

"The rule of law must be upheld."