By Tim Craig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 31, 2007
RICHMOND, Jan. 30 The Virginia House of Delegates approved a far-reaching proposal Tuesday to strip charities and other organizations of state and local funding if any of the money is used to provide services to immigrants in the country illegally.
The proposal, one of nearly 50 immigration-related bills under consideration by the General Assembly, could force such groups as the Salvation Army and the Virginia Association of Free Clinics to verify immigration status before offering assistance to those in need or risk losing funding.
"This is to make sure the monies that are going to charities and organizations go to the people they are intended to go to, which is legal immigrants," said Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), the sponsor of the bill. "The ultimate goal is to make the commonwealth of Virginia an unwelcome place if you are in this country illegally."
Responded Kitty Hardt, director of program operations at Commonwealth Catholic Charities: "We don't stop services to look for documentation."
Tuesday's action in Richmond mirrors attempts at the local level to curb illegal immigration. The city of Manassas, Miller's home town, has been combating crowding in single-family houses. Herndon has approved measures designed to discourage illegal immigrants from living and finding work in the town. Prince William County supervisors have complained about illegal immigration's rising cost to the county.
Over the next month, delegates and senators are expected to debate bills aimed at making life difficult for those who have entered the country illegally. There are bills to deny in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, punish employers who hire undocumented workers and expand the power of state and local police so they can help federal authorities apprehend people in the country illegally. Other pieces of legislation would make it a crime for an illegal immigrant to come to Virginia.
Miller's proposal, approved 70 to 29, says an organization cannot use public funds to provide any service to an illegal immigrant who is 19 or older. If it does, the organization would be in violation of the law and ineligible for future funding. The measure now goes to the Senate.
Maj. James Allison, general secretary of the National Capital and Virginia Division of the Salvation Army, said his organization will have no choice but to turn people away if Miller's bill is approved. "Our main desire is to get service to people who need it, without discrimination, but we have to comply by state, federal and local guidelines as it relates to funding, so we would have to tighten up," Allison said.
Lawmakers said charitable groups could help illegal immigrants as long as the money is from their private, not state or local, funds.
Immigrant rights advocates said that taken together, the bills are mean-spirited and contribute to a growing bias against Hispanics, who make up 6 percent of the state's population.
"I think they have put together an agenda that says we are going to beat up on illegal aliens, regardless of their status as children or adults," said Del. A. Donald McEachin (D-Richmond).
This is the second consecutive year that immigration has been a major issue before the General Assembly. Last year, lawmakers considered more than two dozen immigration-related bills, but most were defeated. Lawmakers said some of the bills stand a better chance this year because all 140 legislators are up for reelection and Congress has yet to act on a comprehensive immigration reform.
The same scenario is playing out in other state capitals as a growing number of legislators are vowing to take the lead in stemming the flow of undocumented workers. In Texas, for example, lawmakers want to prohibit the children of illegal immigrants from working for the government, and they want to impose steep fees on money wired to Latin America, according to Governing Magazine.
But advocates for stricter immigration laws say the environment is particularly ripe in Virginia, which has a Republican-controlled legislature and growing public angst over the number of illegal immigrants.
"Virginia is receptive. There are a lot of people hearing from their constituents saying, 'This has got to stop,' " said William Buchanan, legislative director of the American Council for Immigration Reform. "All across Northern Virginia, communities are being swept away."
Some political strategists think immigration is a winning issue for Republicans heading into this fall's legislative races. Last fall, Miller narrowly won his seat in a special election in Prince William County in which illegal immigration was a major issue. "The problem is not with legal immigrants; they try to assimilate. The problem is the illegal aliens; they are not assimilating," said Bob Rudine, a member of Help Save Herndon.
But Claire Guthrie Castañaga, a lobbyist for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, said the General Assembly is considering legislation that will "create a hostile environment for all people of color."
She pointed to proposals to give state and local police broader authority in seeking out people in the country illegally, including a proposal being championed by Attorney General Robert F. McDonnell (R). The bill, up for debate in the House on Wednesday, would give state and local officers investigating violent crimes the authority to detain illegal immigrants once they have an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Under current law, police can detain illegal immigrants only if they are felons or have been deported. "Local law enforcement, like me, are frustrated we have no ability to enforce the laws, and our citizens are frustrated," McDonnell said.
Castañaga countered that the policy will lead to situations of racial profiling, in which police could stop anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. "This has implications for everyone who is an immigrant walking down the street, unless you have a sign that says, 'Hi, I am legal,' " Castañaga said.