Mr. Kilgore's Nativism

Thursday, August 11, 2005

WITH A GRATUITOUS blast at illegal immigrants, Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican candidate for governor in Virginia, has injected a nativist note into the campaign. Struggling in the latest statewide poll and evidently grasping for an issue to excite his conservative base and make inroads in Northern Virginia, Mr. Kilgore injected himself into a local dispute in the town of Herndon, in western Fairfax County: He announced his opposition to the town's efforts to establish a publicly funded gathering spot for day laborers, many of them illegal immigrants, who work in the area's booming construction industry. In Mr. Kilgore's view, providing such a site for Hispanic laborers, who currently await work in the parking lot of a convenience store, would "undercut our laws and our stability by rewarding those who . . . are in this country illegally."

Well, we certainly wouldn't want to see Herndon's day laborers subvert Virginia's stability. But it's hard to see how the commonwealth is safer or how its laws are more secure, with the workers clamoring for construction jobs and disrupting traffic in front of a 7-Eleven, as they do now.

Then again, if we read Mr. Kilgore correctly, he'd like to see all undocumented immigrants given the boot. As Virginia's attorney general, the title he held until earlier this year, he supported legislation that would give local police the authority to detain illegal immigrants after they've been arrested for another crime -- loitering, say -- and turn them over to federal officials. Mr. Kilgore seems to care little that police officers, who lack the training, time and resources to act as immigration agents, are opposed to the idea; they're actually busy with local crime. Nor does he explain how Northern Virginia, which has virtually no unemployment, would furnish itself with construction crews, landscapers, janitors, child-care workers and short-order cooks and fill dozens of other positions in the absence of the very immigrants he so badly wants to deport.

The federal government's failure to seal the borders and enforce immigration laws is a legitimate subject for debate, and a number of states have been forced to deal with the consequences of that failure. But Mr. Kilgore is not adding a constructive voice to the debate. He is simply on the prowl for a wedge issue, and hopes he's found one in immigrant-bashing. Uninvited, he stepped into the dispute in Herndon several days after a conservative radio talk show host, broadcasting from Sacramento, urged listeners to deluge Herndon Town Hall with so many phone calls protesting the proposed day-laborer site that they would "melt the switchboard." In an ugly response, listeners did just that, peppering their calls and e-mails with expletives denouncing the immigrants and the town officials who would help them. Herndon officials were forced to unplug the phones.

Given the passions unleashed in this dispute, perhaps the temptation to fan the flames with a naked appeal for votes was simply too strong for Mr. Kilgore. But he should have summoned the strength to resist it. Virginia's most pressing problems -- including transportation, education and health care -- will require all of the next governor's energies. It would be nice if candidates for governor showed they could focus on the big issues rather than play politics with bitter and emotional local disputes.

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