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Va. GOP Seizes on 'Red-Hot' Concern

Virginia Senate candidate Bob FitzSimmonds takes extra copies of his brochure on illegal immigration as he knocks on doors in Prince William County.
Virginia Senate candidate Bob FitzSimmonds takes extra copies of his brochure on illegal immigration as he knocks on doors in Prince William County. (Photos By Dayna Smith For The Washington Post)

The abusive-driver fees, which took effect July 1 and range from $750 to $3,000 for serious traffic offenses, were supported by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and members of both parties but were conceived by Republicans to avoid raising taxes to pay for road and transit projects.

"Republicans feel that [immigration] is a real opportunity for them to mobilize their base constituency, especially at a time when the Republican grass roots are so dispirited," said Mark J. Rozell, a political science professor at George Mason University.

Republicans dispute the notion that they are exaggerating the immigration issue to gain political advantage, saying they are responding to complaints they get from voters.

As FitzSimmonds campaigned in Prince William recently, Marie Humston, 58, stepped onto her porch to ask him what could be done about the 12 people who she said moved into a single-family home next to hers on leafy Cliffbrook Court in Montclair.

"There are some things we can do at the state level," FitzSimmonds said before handing her his brochure, which lists such proposals as punishing employers who hire illegal immigrants and denying in-state tuition to illegal immigrants.

But most four-year colleges already prohibit illegal immigrants, and a 1994 law asks sheriffs to check immigration status.

"People need to recognize and realize that these promises are really just bumper sticker messages," said Flavia Jimenez, an immigrant policy analyst for the National Council of La Raza, which bills itself as the largest national Hispanic civil rights and advocacy group in the United States. "Many politicians are promising to fix the illegal immigration problem without hard facts to follow the statements they are making."

It's not just Republicans touting immigration. Democrats are, too, especially in conservative districts.

George Barker, a Democrat running against O'Brien in one of Northern Virginia's most competitive races, said immigration has "got people's attention. It's not just a Republican issue."

Although candidates in both parties are promising to take action if elected, there is little state and local governments can do, in part because the law provides many protections for illegal immigrants, as Herndon found out recently when a judge determined that the town's day-laborer center must be open to all workers, including those in the country illegally. Town officials shut down the center rather than comply with the court.

It is unclear whether talking about illegal immigration will help Republicans this fall. Republicans Jerry W. Kilgore and George Allen tried to use the issue in their last statewide campaigns but lost. But immigration did appear to help Republican Corey A. Stewart win chairmanship of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors last fall.

National party leaders are warning that the issue could hurt the GOP as it tries to keep the White House next year and make gains in Congress. Virginia's U.S. Senate race next year will no doubt include an airing of the immigration issue.

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