A rising anti-immigrant backlash, fueled by widespread frustration with congressional inaction on comprehensive immigration reform, could lead to increased efforts to promote local enforcement of immigration laws in the 2007 Virginia General Assembly session.
From the beginning of the session on Jan. 10 to its adjournment on Feb. 24, the General Assembly considered 53 immigrant-related proposals, mostly aimed at “cracking down” on immigrants. Several bills would have further endangered immigrant crime survivors by giving them reason to fear that contact with the authorities could lead to their deportation, rather than to their deliverance from violence.
Seven of these bills either authorized state and local police to enter into Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) or purported to deputize all Virginia state and local police—even outside of an MOU—to enforce federal civil immigration laws. Of these, two went so far as to make the mere presence of an undocumented immigrant in Virginia the most serious misdemeanor crime (Class I) and to provide for warrantless arrests of undocumented immigrants.
None of the bills pressing for local immigration enforcement included any provisions to ensure that immigrant crime survivors, such as Tahirih’s clients, could safely come forward to seek help from the police.
Still another particularly alarming measure would effectively have denied immigrant crime survivors access to other life-saving support services. HB 2937 threatened to make every non-profit organization in Virginia “card” all those seeking help at the door, by prohibiting the use of state and local funding to assist undocumented immigrants.
If HB 2937 had become law, Tahirih could have lost critical grant money that enables us to provide our legal services. Tahirih also risked losing access to the extensive network of other social service providers that help ensure a safety net for our clients, which includes shelters and crisis counselors.
Tahirih worked with a broad-based coalition that succeeded in defeating rash proposals like HB 2937 and led the specific effort to rally advocates against local immigration enforcement measures. As a result of these focused efforts and those of the broader immigrant advocacy coalition, at the end of this year’s General Assembly session, only eight of the 53 original immigration-related bills remained, none of which threatened to deputize local police to enforce immigration law. In fact, two of the remaining bills that were ultimately signed into law by Governor Kaine are positive law enforcement measures that help protect immigrants from those who would extort money or labor from them by withholding their immigration documents.
Virginia is an increasingly important battleground state for these debates. Foreign-born residents now represent about 10% of Virginia’s total population. Virginia is literally in the backyard of our nation’s legislators and policymakers and we have tremendous potential to show them how to create strong, safe, and inclusive communities.