President Obama highlighted immigration reform during his State of the Union address on Tuesday. The issue is fast gaining momentum among both Democrats and Republicans, who are quickly regrouping after Mitt Romney won just 27 percent of the Latino vote in November.
How will comprehensive immigration reform play in Virginia, whose attitude toward newcomers from foreign countries is all over the map?
The sheer number of these immigrants is one factor changing the once reliably conservative state into a more moderate one. The state’s high-tech firms, especially in Northern Virginia, cry out for skilled foreign engineers.
But Virginia is also home to advocates of strict measures against undocumented foreigners. One such torch-bearer has been Corey A. Stewart, the Republican chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors. Stewart has made a career of targeting undocumented workers in his home county and the rest of the state.
Nationally, that was the flavor of the day only a few years ago, when conservative Republicans and Tea Party activists made a big deal about their homeland being overrun by 12 million or more illegal immigrants said to be stealing American jobs and social support.
The number of undocumented immigrants, however, has since dropped to about 11 million, thanks to the weak economy and the unwelcoming environment here. These hard-liners shot down any attempts at a gradual approach toward making illegals legal, even such efforts by former President George W. Bush, a Republican.
For the epitome of the poisonous atmosphere in the Old Dominion, look no farther than Farmville, a quaint small town about an hour southwest of Richmond known for Longwood University and some furniture stores.
There, cashing in on the anti-illegal craze, several Richmond investors built, using considerable public money, a private detention center aimed at housing undocumented immigrants — who tend to be from Hispanic countries. Many of these immigrants have been charged with such nonviolent infractions such as overstaying their visas. They had previously been housed in higher security public prisons.
In 2010, ICA-Farmville opened for business. Its detention facility on 18 acres can hold more than 775 people Local officials liked the idea because it pays their communities $1 to $2 per day per detainee in taxes. To help build the facility, ICA was able to get money for infrastructure improvements from a public fund set up using by cigarette firm money meant to help wean parts of the state from its dependence upon the tobacco industry.
To get an idea of whom the ICA-Farmville facility is for, look at the ICA Web site.
It features such things as “dress codes” — in English and Spanish — for those who are visiting detainees. The guidelines get rather personal. Female visitors older than 12 must wear proper clothes, such as shorts that “shall cover customarily covered areas of the anatomy, including the buttocks and groin area, both when standing and sitting.” Sheer shirts are verboten, as are “bare midriffs and strapless tops, tube tops and swimsuits.”
Male visitors must wear pants or shorts that go no higher than mid thigh. Prohibited are “muscle” shirts and “gang” colors. Everyone must wear shoes.
What’s so curious is how the Farmville private prison’s rules are so obviously aimed at low-income Latinos, many of whom perform useful labor at extremely low wages. At the other end of the spectrum, high-income, foreign engineers or others badly needed by American firms are kept away by tight restrictions on H-1B visas.
According to the New York Times, so few visas are allocated each year that Facebook had to locate 80 engineers in Dublin, Ireland, because it couldn’t get visas for them to work in California.
Here in Virginia, the ICA-Farmville private prison shows just what attitudes comprehensive visa reform faces. The state has a long history of oppressive behavior toward minority groups and the poor. Prince Edward County, of which Farmville is county seat, famously shut down its public school system for several years during the Civil Rights era to avoid court-ordered integration.
One wonders what will happen to Farmville’s private jail if the president gets his way.