As Hispanic population booms, immigration debate comes to key Republican’s Va. district


Activists met last month at a home in Roanoke. Emboldened by the growing political clout of Hispanics nationally, more people in Virginia’s 6th District are speaking out about immigration reform. (Ryan Stone/For the Washington Post)
March 2

As chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, a panel at the center of the national immigration debate, Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) has taken a tough stance on illegal immigration that reflects the views of many House Republicans: better border security and law enforcement before other reforms, and “zero tolerance” for illegal immigrants in the future.

But as the representative of the sprawling 6th Congressional District in southwest Virginia, the former immigration lawyer faces the sort of changing demographics that have transformed this conservative, rural region into a multinational mosaic — and that have put immigration reform at the top of the national agenda.

Roanoke, Goodlatte’s home in the Blue Ridge Valley, has seen its Hispanic population soar by 280 percent since 2000, to 6 percent of 100,000 residents — the biggest leap of any jurisdiction in the state except the Washington suburbs. In Harrisonburg, a college town 100 miles north, Hispanics have reached 16 percent of 49,000 residents.

In many other areas of Goodlatte’s district, immigrants are a fast-growing part of the landscape and workforce — from Mexicans who pick apples and process poultry to Indians who work in high-tech and medical fields.

“Since I came here in the 1960s, Roanoke has gone from being a sleepy, segregated town to being a city of extraordinary diversity. Today we proudly celebrate having more than 104 different nationalities,” said Mayor David Bowers, a strong advocate of immigration reform whose wife is from Honduras and who unsuccessfully ran against Goodlatte in 1998.


(The Washington Post)

Goodlatte, a member of Congress for 20 years, is well-liked across the district and holds frequent town meetings with constituents. Local leaders describe him as a practical, approachable politician who has promoted the region’s economic interests. These include agriculture, which has come to rely on low-wage Hispanic workers and periodically runs into problems with federal immigration officials.

Leaders of the state’s $3.8 billion poultry industry say they favor immigration reform, including some version of legalization for workers without papers. Goodlatte, supportive of the industry but opposed to legalization, has proposed expanding a national guest-worker program that would grant multi-year work visas to farm laborers from abroad.

Until recently, though, Goodlatte and his district had not faced the kinds of tensions over immigration that divide Congress and some areas of the country. Legal immigrants brought needed skills to the area, while illegal immigrants were unable to vote and posed no political threat. The total Hispanic population is still less than 6 percent of the district’s 738,000 residents.

But those dynamics are beginning to change. Emboldened by the growing electoral clout of Hispanics nationwide and by President Obama’s non-deportation policy for some young illegal immigrants, Hispanic activists in the district have begun speaking out and holding protests, demanding a halt to deportations and a path to citizenship. Some have targeted Goodlatte directly and traveled to Capitol Hill to support immigration reform.

“Some people see us as a plague, but we are here to work honorably,” said Ricardo Andrade, 30, a Mexican construction worker in Roanoke who has helped organize several protests outside Goodlatte’s local office. “Many have no papers, and they are scared of being deported. We want to overcome those fears and make our voices heard.”

In Washington, Goodlatte has come under attack from some on the right for being too willing to compromise with the Senate, which passed a bipartisan bill on immigration last year. The issue is stalled in the House, with uncertain prospects for revival. Goodlatte declined to be interviewed for this article but sent written comments through his staff.

While noting the contributions of immigrants to his district’s economy and culture, he reiterated his tough stance on illegal immigration, saying that it “undermines the integrity” of U.S. policy. Echoing the approach advocated by many House Republicans, Goodlatte said the United States must “secure the border and enforce our laws” before undertaking broader measures. “It’s more important to get immigration reform right than rush to pass legislation,” he wrote.

A history of tolerance

Roanoke’s open attitude toward immigrants is rooted in its past. Built at the crossroads of two railroad lines, the city has a history of welcoming strangers and cultivating racial harmony; an African American pastor served as mayor from 1975 to 1992. The recent influx of needy newcomers has placed burdens on schools and services, but a growing number of ethnic festivals, churches and charities has helped them adapt and fit in.

“We haven’t had a lot of pushback,” said Russell Merritt, director of a nonprofit literacy program in Roanoke that teaches foreign refugees — from Congolese war victims to Russian brides — to speak English and apply for citizenship. “We have a low unemployment rate, a low crime rate and a lot of jobs immigrants can fill.”

A community of legal immigrants has also helped defuse problems. Pearl Fu, an aristocratic emigre from China, created an outreach group called Local Colors. Yolanda Puraya, a Mexican-born physician, championed an annual Latino Festival and a campaign to involve Hispanics in electoral politics.

Goodlatte, 61, was born in Massachusetts, graduated from law school in Lexington, Va., and practiced law in Roanoke, where he and his wife raised two children. His clients included legal immigrants from more than 70 countries, as he noted in his comments. After entering Congress in 1993, he became a promoter of specialty work visas that allow foreign-born engineers, scientists and researchers to come to the United States for several years at a time.

Merritt said Goodlatte supports his literacy program and often attends its annual celebrations to welcome participants. At the most recent event, he said, the congressman “talked about how America is the land of opportunity and how his office is available if they have any concerns. He did not delve into controversy, but he is not hiding from the issue at all.”

Beyond Roanoke, some areas of the district remain strongholds of conservative rural tradition; Bowers describes his town as “a blue island in a red sea.” But a recent sampling of opinions from leaders in other communities found both tolerance of demographic change and aversion to making immigration a partisan issue.

In Lynchburg, an old manufacturing city in the Blue Ridge foothills, the Hispanic population has nearly tripled to 2,300 in the past decade, while a wider immigrant pool has also been drawn to its five colleges and its fast-growing high-tech, health-care and financial-service sectors. Some companies train high-skilled immigrants from South Asia, often via the kind of specialty visas Goodlatte has promoted.

“As we’ve grown and become more diverse, we’ve also become more cosmopolitan,” said Lynchburg Mayor Michael Gillette, adding that the city has experienced “no detrimental impact” from the growing Latino population. He praised Goodlatte, saying, “I cannot point to a single issue where he has failed to serve our community,” but he added that city officials have tried to steer clear of divisive partisan issues such as immigration reform.

Further north along Interstate 81 are rural towns like Waynesboro, which has long depended on Mexican migrant laborers to work in its orchards and nurseries. Now more are staying and settling down, but their numbers are still small, and local officials said they have been generally well received.

‘Whatever it takes’

Once the highway reaches Harrisonburg, a liberal university town with a long-established program for foreign refugees, one can find Puerto Rican mechanics, Pakistani professors, Iraqi exiles, Peruvian restaurant owners and Chinese college students, as well as the more numerous Mexicans and Central Americans who come to pick fruit or process turkeys.

In the city’s public schools, where 17 percent of new students speak little English, officials work hard to help them and their parents adjust, sponsoring tamale-making contests, literacy classes and soccer tournaments. “We will do whatever it takes,” said Laura Feichtinger McGrath, a school administrator. “What we are really trying to teach is tolerance and coming together as a community.”

Pablo Cuevas, a Cuban-born Republican and county supervisor for the past 24 years, said the Hispanic surge has brought some problems, such as public drinking and gang activity, but has also helped to revive ailing farm industries. Recently, he has helped students apply for legal status under Obama’s offer, and he is convinced that Congress must extend similar rights to older undocumented residents.

“These people work hard and do jobs others won’t. I see them going out in 12-degree weather to prune apple trees,” Cuevas said. “If they can’t get a driver’s license or go to college, they can’t contribute to society.”

He said he has grown frustrated with the legislative stalemate on immigration and disappointed that Goodlatte has not pushed harder for compromise on reform.

“Bob’s a good man. He’s always been accessible and responsive,” Cuevas said, noting that Goodlatte sought to compromise between the need to curb pollution in the Chesapeake Bay and the expense imposed on farmers to reduce waste runoff. But on immigration, he said, “I keep telling him Congress needs to act.”

A few miles away, a group of Hispanic activists met one recent night at a restaurant owned by a former Salvadoran dishwasher. Several were local college students planning a trip to Capitol Hill, where they were scheduled to participate in a discussion with Goodlatte; it was later canceled because of a snowstorm.

“We are not beasts of burden. We want dignity,” said Yossimar de Jesus, 23, a student from Mexico at Harrisonburg’s Eastern Mennonite University. “We may be undocumented, but we have friends and relatives who can vote. If Mr. Goodlatte does not clearly support immigration reform, we will all work against his reelection.”

Pamela Constable covers issues related to immigration policy, immigrant communities and international figures and issues that crop up in our local and regional midst.
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