By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 23, 2007
Several anti-illegal immigrant groups in Virginia are marshaling forces into a new umbrella organization, Save the Old Dominion, that will lobby state lawmakers to place further restrictions on those residing in the state unlawfully.
With the General Assembly session starting Jan. 9, the illegal immigration debate that dominated several local races this fall will travel to Richmond, where legislators will consider proposals ranging from tougher police enforcement to a ban on bilingual government documents. Save the Old Dominion members said they want to coordinate their efforts to avoid a repeat of last year's legislative letdown, when almost every illegal immigration-related proposal failed.
"Elected officials know the electorate is looking for something to be done" this year, said Help Save Manassas President Greg Letiecq, who is organizing Save the Old Dominion. "If we can get this network of activists involved in engaging their local elected officials, we'll get stuff moving."
Save the Old Dominion is composed of seven organizations with about 2,500 members, according to Letiecq, although Help Save Manassas accounts for almost 2,000 of those members. Others include Help Save Loudoun, Vienna Citizens Group, Help Save Hampton Roads, Centreville Citizen's Coalition, Help Protect Culpeper and Save Stafford.
The name Save the Old Dominion was chosen because another anti-illegal immigrant umbrella group, Help Save Virginia, already exists. The emergence of the second group reflects a minor split in the ranks of Northern Virginia's anti-illegal immigrant activists but one that is largely the result of personality, not policy, differences.
"Do we need another organization? I don't think so," said Phil Jones, co-director of Help Save Virginia. Although the organizations have overlapping policy goals and include many of the same members, Jones accused Letiecq of starting Save the Old Dominion for "personal fame and glory." The group's debut landed Letiecq an appearance Wednesday on CNN's "Lou Dobbs Tonight," on which he told viewers that moneyed special interests stand in the way of reform.
"He's kind of run off in his own direction," Jones said. He said Help Save Virginia members were upset when Letiecq recently sought member donations to cover his personal expenses because he was dedicating more time to activism.
"A grass-roots organization isn't the proper place to solicit funds for personal gain," Jones said. "If you're going to line your pockets as a 'salaried' employee, there are certain rules you just have to follow."
Letiecq said he was "mystified" by Jones's criticism. "I've never been compensated for my time," he said, adding "that's really something for the members of Help Save Manassas to deal with."
Save the Old Dominion is the latest of several organizations related to immigration that have arisen in the past year in the state. Several city and county leaders have formed a Coalition on Illegal Aliens. State lawmakers and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) created the Virginia Commission on Immigration to study the issue and draft policy recommendations.
The initiatives Save the Old Dominion is planning to push in this year's General Assembly are a mix of new and familiar proposals, some of which have been losers in the past. One would give state police a greater role in immigration enforcement through the Homeland Security Department's 287(g) program, a change that Kaine has opposed. Others would deny public services and benefits to illegal immigrants, prevent them from obtaining bail if held in police custody and prohibit governments from printing public documents in languages other than English.
"The illegal alien issue will be the number one issue this year," predicted Belinda Dexter of Virginia Beach, chairman of Help Save Hampton Roads. Dexter said her group remains small, so it is working closely with national organizations such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform and following the lead of the larger and better-organized anti-illegal immigrant groups in Northern Virginia such as Help Save Manassas.
"They're blazing the trail," she said.
As a counterweight, several other groups will be urging lawmakers to reject the measures put forth by Save the Old Dominion, Help Save Virginia and others. "We're going to tell them they need to redirect anger against immigrants to the U.S. Congress, so the law is fixed at the national level," said Mauricio Vivero, executive director of the Ayuda Business Coalition, a group of mostly Latino entrepreneurs based in the Washington region.
Vivero said his group will travel to Richmond next month with the newly formed Virginia Employers for Sensible Immigration Policy, which opposes laws seeking to punish employers who have unauthorized workers on their payrolls.
Vivero's group also opposes the use of state police in the enforcement of federal immigration laws, saying the job is best left to detention facilities that process criminals. "If you're in the criminal justice system, that's fine; they need to check your status," he said. "But it's not an appropriate role for police. We are no safer if cops are going around arresting women in minivans who are just cleaning houses."
Since the debut of Save the Old Dominion, Letiecq said he has received at least 40 e-mails from individuals who would like to join the effort but do not have a group in their community. Many, such as Winchester resident Eric Evans, have little experience with politics and have never thought of themselves as activists.
"I saw the news story on [TV], and I'm like, 'Hell yes, that's exactly what we need,' " said Evans, who said he then rushed to his computer, looked up Save the Old Dominion and sent a message to Letiecq.
Evans, 48, who owns a heating and air conditioning business, said he became passionate about the issue after a landscaping company started housing its workers next door to his family's home. "There were beer cans all over the place, cars parked on my yard, noise and mayhem in my neighborhood," said Evans, who counted 12 adults in the four-bedroom house. "They were making catcalls at my 13-year-old daughter in Spanish, and I had no clue what they're saying," he said.
City zoning inspectors eventually stepped in and evicted the men, but the process took six months. And Evans's feelings were galvanized. He's following Letiecq's advice and organizing a Winchester affiliate for Save the Old Dominion.
"I remember 1968 and saw how this country was moved," he said, taking inspiration from the civil rights movement. "The protests and the voice of the people is what changed the outlook and the laws of this country. We need to go at it with a democratic approach."