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February 12, 2016

Virginia Legislators Putting Politics Ahead of Policy on Immigration

Though Virginians of every immigration status are paying taxes and contributing to our economy and communities, state legislators refuse to take important steps to help some folks who live and work here. Simultaneously, they are advancing mean-spirited proposals that could strain local budgets and jeopardize communities that struggle to get by.

No Change this Year on Access to Driver’s Licenses

The top legislative priority this year for Virginia’s immigrant communities is for people with any immigration status to be able to obtain driver’s licenses, as in 12 other states and the District of Columbia. This would improve public safety by giving  more drivers the opportunity to be trained, tested, licensed, and insured. But a Senate committee rejected one such a proposal, and a similar one by Delegate Bloxum – a Republican legislator from the Eastern Shore who is concerned about public safety and the needs of farmers – was sent to study by a House subcommittee.

While that’s a better result than outright rejection, it delays the remedy for Virginians who are struggling right now. And that same House subcommittee recommended killing a set of narrow bills to provide license access for certain groups of lawfully present Virginians who don’t fall into one of the categories currently outlined in state law.

Meanwhile, the continued delay in providing driver’s licenses to more Virginians means too many still won’t be able to get a driver’s license solely due to their immigration status, not any history of poor driving. The proposed study is a good step forward, but it’s disappointing that policymakers didn’t make even a few fixes to the current restrictive laws, and that the Senate committee didn’t propose any path forward.

Rejecting the Creation of an Office of Immigrant Assistance

State Senate committees are also turning down proposals to improve opportunities for all Virginians. A proposal to create a small “Office of Immigrant Assistance” that would assist lawful immigrants in becoming citizens and finding employment opportunities was turned down by a Senate committee because of the cost to the state. A similar proposal and a bill to study how to improve economic opportunities for “aspiring and diverse communities and populations” are pending discussion in the House, but it appears unlikely that the Office of Immigrant Assistance will be created.

Sending a Hostile Message, and Potentially Costly

Meanwhile, harmful bills intended to “send a message” about undocumented immigrants are moving through both branches of the legislature.

The Senate passed two “anti-sanctuary” bills (SB705; and SB270) that penalize any city or county that “adopts any ordinance, procedure, or policy that restricts the enforcement of federal immigration laws to less than the full extent permitted by federal law.” These proposals might seem symbolic – no Virginia locality is known to be refusing to cooperate with federal immigration authorities – but their wording might actually prevent policies that reassure immigrant communities that the local police will not proactively enforce federal immigration law or inquire about the immigration status of victims and witnesses of crimes.

The House passed a bill stating that local jails can only transfer immigrants against whom the federal government has placed a hold (“detainer”) to the custody of federal immigration authorities or another facility, and cannot release them, with the exception that the individual cannot be held after the day they would otherwise be released. That sounds symbolic, since Virginia jails and prisons already notify federal immigration authorities about the pending release of immigrants subject to hold requests and turn them over to federal authorities when those authorities come to pick them up. But it appears that the bill might also prevent local jails from releasing immigrants who are subject to detainers on bail or other pre-trial detention alternatives.

Virginia already has a presumption that undocumented immigrants facing certain charges cannot be released on bail, but it appears this proposal might prevent bail and other pre-trial detention alternatives for all undocumented immigrants against whom the federal government has placed detainers, not just those facing certain charges. And it might turn the existing presumption into a blanket ban. To the extent that this proposal further restricts the use of bail and pre-trial detention alternatives, it could cost localities money, as they’re forced to spend more incarcerating possibly innocent people awaiting trial.

The commonwealth is home to more than 1 million immigrants, and many Virginia families include members with a range of immigration statuses. Virginia’s immigrant communities are more organized and engaged than ever before, but so far our legislature has continued to be more interested in punitive and symbolic anti-immigrant measures than in sensible steps forward to integrate people living in our communities into the state’s economy.

Levi Goren

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