Poll Finds Va. Focused On Illegal Immigrants

Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), shown debating Democrat Sharon Pandak.
Prince William Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), shown debating Democrat Sharon Pandak. "For many people, this has really become a serious threat to their quality of life," he said. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Anita Kumar and Jon Cohen
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, October 24, 2007

After years of simmering in the background, illegal immigration has quickly emerged as one of the key issues in Virginia's Nov. 6 election, particularly in Northern Virginia, where voters say they are seeking candidates who will address it, according to a new Washington Post poll.

Three-quarters of likely voters in Virginia said immigration is important to their votes in the election for state and local offices, while just a year ago, immigration ranked seventh of 10 listed issues in a Post poll before the U.S. Senate race. Since then, the percentage of Virginia voters calling immigration "extremely" or "very" important to their vote has jumped 15 points.

"That's heartening," said Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, who spearheaded efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants. "For many people, this has really become a serious threat to their quality of life."

There is a widespread sense that illegal immigration is a local problem, particularly after Congress's failure to approve an immigration overhaul this summer. That has vaulted the issue into prominence.

It has also gained attention because of what people in both parties say is a predominantly Republican tactic to turn attention away from President Bush's sagging approval ratings, an unpopular war and the state's costly new abusive-driver fees.

"It's a conscious political strategy by Virginia Republicans," said Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant advocacy group in Washington. "What happens in Virginia in the legislative races will be a pretty good test of whether this works or not."

Republicans across the state -- and a few Democrats in conservative districts -- have seized the issue, unveiling countless proposals to curb illegal immigration and talking it up on the campaign trail.

In the past two statewide elections, the unsuccessful Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and governor tried to make immigration an issue, but it did not resonate as deeply with voters as such problems as traffic congestion. Transportation and the state's economy are still the biggest issues facing Virginia today, according to the Post poll, but immigration has made a surge in voter interest this fall. Among likely voters, 61 percent called illegal immigration a problem where they live.

A majority of likely voters who said immigration is extremely important would like to see Republicans maintain control of the General Assembly, and those who call the issue the state's top problem generally prefer the GOP approach. But overall, Virginians give Democrats a narrow edge on handling immigration, and more voters would like to see the Democrats take over the state legislature.

"I think Democrats would have a better solution," said Barbara Humphreys, 57, of Buena Vista, who ranks immigration as a top issue, along with the economy and the war in Iraq.

Political analysts say Democrats could make gains in the Republican-led legislature Nov. 6, when all 140 House and Senate seats are up for grabs. Democrats could take control of the Senate for the first time since 1999 and pick up a half-dozen or so seats in the House of Delegates, analysts say.

A majority of Virginians, 53 percent, said they want state and local governments to do "a lot" to deal with illegal immigration; an additional third said they want "some" action.

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