Losses Put GOP In Tough Situation

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 9, 2007

RICHMOND, Nov. 8 -- House Republican leaders, who made immigration a centerpiece of the fall campaign, said Thursday that efforts in the Virginia General Assembly to crack down on illegal immigrants probably are doomed because of losses their party suffered in the election this week.

"It's dead on arrival," said Del. David B. Albo, (R-Fairfax), who chairs the Virginia Crime Commission, which is considering immigration proposals. "It's very disappointing."

House leaders said they still would introduce anti-illegal immigration bills, including those that would prohibit illegal immigrants from attending public colleges, require sheriffs to check immigration status and suspend the business licenses of companies that hire illegal immigrants.

They said, however, that even if the GOP-led House approves the proposals, they are not optimistic that the Senate, which will be controlled by Democrats for the first time in a decade, would consider any of them. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) has said he believes immigration policy is largely a federal issue.

"It's going to be a lot tougher," said Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), chairman of the House Republican caucus. "I'm sure it's not on the top of [the Democrats] list. . . . But we are going to push forward."

Sen. Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax), who is poised to become majority leader in the Senate, accused Republicans of using the illegal immigration issue to try to win voters in Tuesday's legislative elections and said his chamber would not tolerate the same kind of "grandstanding." Many of the House and Senate candidates who embraced the party's stance on illegal immigration lost, including several in Northern Virginia.

Saslaw said he would consider all legislation but immigration is not one of his priorities. Instead, he would rather see lawmakers revisit the costly and contentious abusive-driver fees, the budget shortfall and education funding.

"I'm willing to look at all legislation," he said. "It doesn't mean I have to vote for it all."

More than 50 bills dealing with illegal immigration were proposed during the legislative session this year. Only seven were sent to Kaine for his signature, including increased penalties for housing violations.

Many of the bills died after they reached the Senate, which is now controlled by a group of moderate Republicans who often collaborate with Democrats. After Tuesday, Democrats have a 21-seat advantage in the 40-member chamber, with one race undecided.

Tim Freilich, legal director for the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers, said he hopes legislators will be thoughtful when considering proposals next year.

"Unfortunately, I think there will be many proposals introduced that I would consider to be both anti-immigrant and anti-Virginia," he said. "More than 10 percent of Virginians were born outside the United States. When you hurt Virginia's immigrants you hurt Virginia."

Republicans across the state, and some Democrats in conservative districts, seized the issue this fall, unveiling countless proposals to curb illegal immigration and talking it up on the campaign trail. But many candidates who campaigned the loudest for tough sanctions against illegal immigrants did not win.

"I am hoping that the people will really understand that the election sent a message that voters don't reward them for this issue," said Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, who represents several immigrant groups, including the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.

But Corey A. Stewart (R) said his election to a full term as chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors proved that many Virginians want local and state government to step in because the federal government has failed to address the country's immigration problem.

Although state and local governments can do little to resolve immigration concerns, a Washington Post poll in early October found that 53 percent of Virginians said they want state and local governments to do "a lot" to deal with illegal immigration.

Since an immigration overhaul package died in Congress this summer, several organizations in Virginia have formed to try to address illegal immigration, and several localities have acted.

Prince William voted to curtail government services to illegal immigrants, and Herndon voted to close a controversial day-laborer center frequented by many illegal immigrants. Fairfax County officials are trying to determine which county services could be denied to illegal immigrants, although they have not decided to do that.

Sen. John S. Edwards (D-Roanoke), who sits on two Senate committees that often consider immigration bills, said he could consider any proposals that come up during session next year.

"We need to look at the proposals first," he said. "Some of their ideas are preposterous. Others we could work with."

The state crime commission would consider several proposals next week, including automatically denying bail to illegal immigrants who commit crimes unless they can prove they are not flight risks, and having authorities ask all arrestees about their immigration status. A new Virginia Commission on Immigration, which also is scheduled to meet next week, will advise Kaine and the General Assembly on what, if any, state policies should be adopted to address illegal immigration.

Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), who chairs the commission on immigration, said he expects the issue to be debated by his group and later by the General Assembly.

"It took two years to come up with a commission and put it in place," he said. "Why did we go to all the trouble of putting the commission in place?"

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