Arizona law helps Va. GOP find its voice in immigration dispute again

Del. C. Todd Gilbert:
Del. C. Todd Gilbert: "Fighting the same fight" (Steve Helber - AP)
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By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010

RICHMOND -- Virginia Republicans who had backed away from the hot-button topic of illegal immigration the past couple of years, concerned that the hard-line approach could backfire at the ballot box, are embracing the issue once again.

Republicans were emboldened after Arizona legislators passed a tough new law, even more so when the Obama administration, in a rare move, sued to prevent the most controversial sections from taking effect.

"The open-border crowd doesn't just exist in Arizona," said Del. C. Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah), who is outspoken in the legislature against illegal immigration. "We are definitely fighting the same fight they are."

Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large), chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, kicked off a campaign to bring an Arizona-like law to localities across the state. Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli II garnered national headlines last week when he issued an opinion that allows police to question the immigration status of anyone stopped for any reason.

And Gov. Robert F. McDonnell (R), who rarely mentioned illegal immigration during his campaign last year and instead made an unprecedented push to court votes in immigrant communities, is asking the federal government to train and deputize state troopers so they can make legal-status checks and refer individuals for deportation.

Virginia, already known for some of the nation's toughest policies on illegal immigration, has attracted the attention of the same national groups that helped Arizona craft its law. It appears on their list of top 10 targeted states.

But it remains a tough issue for some Republicans, including McDonnell, who has tried to take a moderate, pragmatic approach during his short time in office. Some conservatives warn that lawmakers need to protect against coming across as insensitive to Hispanics -- a problem that has contributed to losses in state and national elections.

Michael Thompson, executive director of the Thomas Jefferson Institute for Public Policy, a conservative think tank based in Fairfax County, said some Republicans have a "mean streak" when talking about immigration.

"It's a knee-jerk reaction. They need to be careful," he said. "The Republican Party is just nuts if they do this the wrong way. Hispanics are the second-largest minority group in the country today."

Back on the front burner

Virginia's recent shift into the center of the national immigration debate was more a reentry: Long before Arizona passed its new law, Herndon voted to close a day-laborer center frequented by illegal immigrants, Prince William and Loudoun counties had curtailed services to illegal immigrants and directed police to check the immigration status of anyone arrested, and state lawmakers had considered hundreds of immigration proposals.

"In some ways, this is coming back to Virginia from Arizona," said Tim Freilich, legal director for the Legal Aid Justice Center in Virginia. "We see in the Arizona statute many lessons I think the [national groups] learned in Prince William County."

But after putting the issue at the center of their party platform for several years, Republican interest in immigration 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.

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