Va. Panel on Immigration Steps Back From Hard Line

By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, November 24, 2008

RICHMOND -- Virginia, known for some of the nation's toughest policies on illegal immigration, appears to be abandoning its hard-line approach as state officials consider proposals to help foreign-born residents assimilate, including increasing the number of English classes.

In the coming weeks, the Virginia Commission on Immigration will send Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) two dozen recommendations, most of which would help immigrants instead of penalizing them.

Those on both sides of the issue say interest in immigration has waned because of the growing economic crisis, a clearer understanding of the state's limitations on a largely federal issue and backlash at the voting booth.

"I think some reality set in," said state Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), the group's chairman.

Recommendations include shortening the Medicaid residency requirements for certain qualified immigrants, offering in-state tuition to immigrants who meet specific criteria and creating an immigration assistance office.

The commission considered but did not adopt proposals to force immigrants to carry special identification cards, allow hospitals to fingerprint patients who do not pay their bills and require proof of legal residence to be eligible for public assistance.

Virginia officials have spent years addressing the issue of immigration, taking whatever actions they could within the confines of state and federal law. More recently, immigration turned out to be a less popular election issue than some lawmakers had hoped. As a result, state officials appear to be shifting their focus from fighting illegal immigration to assimilating the ever-growing population of legal immigrants.

Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who served on the commission and is staunchly anti-illegal immigration, described the panel's approach to enforcement as "very much watered-down."

"I can't totally disagree that some people are leery of the issue, because maybe it wasn't the wedge issue that some thought it would be," Gilbert said.

In recent years, as Congress repeatedly failed to pass immigration legislation, many states considered immigration bills that addressed employment, identification, law enforcement and public benefits.

In Virginia, Republicans and some Democrats in conservative-leaning districts seized on the issue, unveiling proposals to curb illegal immigration and talking up the cause on the campaign trail. Much of the debate was in Northern Virginia, including Prince William County, where officials curtailed government services to illegal immigrants and increased enforcement.

In 2007, a Washington Post poll found that 9 percent of likely voters in Virginia, and 17 percent in Northern Virginia, considered immigration the most important issue facing the state. But this year only 1 percent of likely voters surveyed listed immigration as a top issue.

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