At Hearing, State Panel Is Urged to Push for Integration and Access

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, May 23, 2008

A state commission studying the costs and benefits of immigration to Virginia heard mainly about benefits yesterday at its first public hearing, where most speakers exhorted panelists to pursue efforts to integrate immigrants and shun policies intended to drive out illegal immigrants.

"In a nation that can afford to be generous to the least of these, too many people live in fear of a knock on the door because they are of Latino descent," Front Royal resident Tom Howarth told the 20-member panel. Echoing others at the forum, he said he was "embarrassed by the treatment of immigrants in Prince William County."

About 200 people attended the hearing at George Mason University. It was the first of five hearings to be held across the state by the Virginia Commission on Immigration, which grew out of a bill passed by the General Assembly last year. The panel will eventually offer recommendations on immigration-related policies to state and federal lawmakers, said state Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), chairman of the commission.

It is one of a handful of state groups formed to study a topic that has seized the attention of local officials nationwide as they grapple with increasingly diverse communities and public angst over illegal immigration. Some localities, such as Prince William, have responded with controversial crackdowns on illegal immigrants.

The topic of yesterday's hearing was the effect of immigration, legal as well as illegal, on Northern Virginia. But most speakers, including several representatives of nonprofit organizations that serve immigrants, focused on a larger landscape, calling for federal solutions to tensions over illegal immigration and expanded access to higher education for those in the country illegally.

"Immigrants are really good-hearted people who are assets to our community," said Alexandria resident Pat Rizzuto. "You've got to distinguish between those concerns that Congress must address, comprehensive immigration reform, and those that Virginia can already address through its existing laws."

Other speakers encouraged stricter local crackdowns on illegal immigration, which they said drains tax dollars, contributes to sprawl and encourages lawlessness.

"This country is supposed to be a country of laws. If we all obeyed the laws, we'd get along better. But immigration laws have gone by the wayside," said Elmer Savilla, 82, a retired journalist and electrician from Burke. "Respect the laws."

The commission is made up of 11 state lawmakers and nine citizen representatives appointed by Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), including an Alexandria police captain, an Arlington County priest and a Virginia Beach physician.

States and localities have passed record numbers of immigration-related measures in recent years, an approach that critics call piecemeal and divisive but proponents deem a necessary reaction to Congress's stalled overhaul of immigration laws.

Last year, the Virginia State Crime Commission formed a task force on illegal immigration. Separately, three Virginia congressional representatives started an Alien Criminal Enforcement task force to study federal, state and local law enforcement agencies' responses to illegal immigrants who commit crimes.

Over five meetings since the fall, the immigration commission has studied topics such as federal immigration laws, employment services for immigrants, driver's licenses and Hispanic demographics. Immigrants make up about 10 percent of Virginia's population, according to 2006 Census data. The number of illegal immigrants is unknown, but reports by the Pew Hispanic Center and the Center for Immigration Studies estimate it at 3 percent of Virginia's population.

At yesterday's hearing, several speakers told personal stories of illegal immigrants -- themselves, in some cases, or people they knew. Among them was Noelia Olivera, a George Mason graduate student who said she recently was asked by her young cousin why his father had been deported.

"How do I explain that to a 5-year-old and to his daughter, a 3-year-old that walks around and every guy she sees she's like, 'Daddy, Daddy, Daddy?' " said Olivera, 25, tearing up as she spoke. "People like you can come up and make a difference and change the laws that have been broken."

© 2008 The Washington Post Company