The Politics of Immigration

Wednesday, October 5, 2005

GIVEN THE rapid growth of Virginia's immigrant communities in the past 15 years, maybe it was inevitable that the combustible national debate over undocumented workers would seep into this year's governor's campaign. So it did, helped along this summer when the town of Herndon decided to establish a publicly funded gathering spot for day laborers, many of them illegal, who work in Northern Virginia's thriving construction industry. Former attorney general Jerry W. Kilgore, the Republican nominee for governor, knew a wedge issue when he saw one; he pounced on Herndon's decision. He said it would "reward" illegal immigrants and thus subvert the state's laws and stability.

Mr. Kilgore did some admirable things as Virginia's attorney general, cracking down on domestic abuse and pushing for more transparency in state government. But as his interjection on Herndon attests, his record on undocumented immigrants -- an enforcement responsibility mainly of the federal government, not the states -- is tinged with nativism and opportunism. By contrast, Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic nominee, has charted a middle course.

Mr. Kilgore was a driving force behind legislation to deny in-state tuition at Virginia colleges and universities to all illegal immigrants, regardless of their circumstances. Mr. Kaine, like Gov. Mark R. Warner, would have made an exception for taxpaying immigrants brought to the country by their parents and educated in the state's public schools, providing they were seeking to legalize their status. Mr. Kilgore backed an unsuccessful bill to give local police the power to detain people for immigration violations after they've been arrested for another crime; Mr. Kaine opposed saddling state and local police with a federal responsibility they didn't want. Both candidates backed a post-Sept. 11 measure to deny illegal immigrants driver's licenses and government IDs, and both supported a bill, set to become law in January, that will require local and state government to check the legal status of applicants for public benefits.

These are not open-and-shut issues. The federal government's failure to enforce its own immigration laws and police the borders has dumped tough immigration problems on the states. So has the failure to reconcile the robust demand for cheap labor in a number of states, including Virginia, with the unrealistically minuscule number of visas granted each year for unskilled workers. The American economy wants and needs low-wage workers, but the government has done nothing to legalize their entry or status here.

Mr. Kilgore's across-the-board hostility toward undocumented immigrants strikes us as gratuitous and over the top. Hounding Herndon on its day-laborer center is populist nonsense: Would he prefer the status quo ante, when day laborers thronged cars and clamored for jobs in a convenience store parking lot? Mr. Kilgore has also said that as governor, he would ask the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to provide special training for 50 state troopers whose main job would be to arrest undocumented individuals. Putting aside doubts about such a program's practicability, we'd suggest the state has enough other crime to keep its troopers busy.

Mr. Kaine stayed out of the Herndon dispute, which he correctly called a local matter. He grasps that immigrants, documented and undocumented, have become an integral part of the state's labor market, especially in Northern Virginia, where there is almost no unemployment. He has placed the blame for the problem and the burden for its solution where it properly belongs: with the federal government. Mr. Kilgore, by contrast, prefers posturing on illegal immigration, without regard to the resentments that may be stirred up toward immigrants generally. In seeking to crack down on and evict undocumented workers, Mr. Kilgore should bear the burden of explaining how the employment market would replace them.

This is one in a series of editorials on issues in the Virginia gubernatorial race. Others can be found at http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions.


© 2005 The Washington Post Company