By Anita Kumar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, August 8, 2010; C01
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.
Republicans say that immigration has always been important but that the issue was put on the back burner the past few years because the souring economy took precedent.
"People were concerned about jobs, the economy, taxes," McDonnell said. "I talked about what people were most concerned about at the time."
Cuccinelli said that "grass-roots activists" have always pressed him on immigration but that voters told him last year it was not the top issue. He said that even now, it has not regained the importance it had in 2007, when the economy was in better shape and more illegal immigrants were finding work in the state, particularly in Northern Virginia.
But Stewart, one of the state's most outspoken elected officials on illegal immigration, accused his party's leaders -- including McDonnell and Cuccinelli -- of being "afraid" of the issue, even though last year he, too, declared the issue over.
"Republicans play it too soft. They are afraid of being labeled intolerant," he said. "It does take political courage. It's a politically risky issue."
About 275,000 to 325,000 of the 12 million illegal immigrants estimated to be in the United States live in Virginia, according to the Pew Hispanic Center in Washington. The U.S. Census Bureau says an additional 435,000 people in Virginia are not U.S. citizens and are in the state legally.
Sen. Mary Margaret Whipple (D-Arlington), a leader in the Democratic-led body, said Republicans have tried to take laws too far by targeting individuals based on their appearance, not their behavior.
"Politically, it makes no sense to write off a segment of the U.S. population," Whipple said. "In the long run, it's a losing issue for the Republicans."'It's an ideal issue'
Del. Robert G. Marshall (R-Prince William) said he asked for Cuccinelli's legal opinion in May, after the Arizona law passed, because he thought that some of the same people who were interested in combating illegal immigration a few years ago would approach him again for a solution. He did not think he would be able to get his proposals through the Senate, he said, and he wanted to have a better understanding of what he could pursue before legislators return in January.
Since then, other proponents of tougher immigration enforcement have seized on a recent car accident involving an illegal immigrant. The man was charged with involuntary manslaughter and drunken-driving-related counts after one nun was killed and two others were injured when their car was hit head-on in Bristow. Several lawmakers say they received calls and e-mails after the accident asking for action.
"I think the Republicans, they've seen the polling, and they've seen the public interest. They're looking for a way to align themselves with that energy," said Michael M. Hethmon, legal counsel for the national group Immigration Reform Law Institute, which helped craft the Arizona law and provided technical assistance to Stewart.
Stephen J. Farnsworth, a political analyst at George Mason University, said it was inevitable for Republicans to return to immigration because they are mostly united on the issue, while Democrats are divided.
"Immigration is too good an issue for Republicans not to come back to over and over again," he said. "It behooves any Republican to take this up. It's an ideal issue."
But some legislators say that Virginia, which was quick to act after it was discovered that several of the Sept. 11 hijackers had state identification cards, has done all it can.
It passed legislation requiring applicants to provide proof of citizenship or legal presence in the United States, along with proof of Virginia residency. It banned illegal immigrants from getting non-emergency taxpayer benefits, such as welfare. It requires that jails check the immigration status of everyone who has been arrested and taken into custody.
Sen. John C. Watkins (R-Chesterfield), who led a state immigration panel under Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) and is now co-chairman of an immigration task force for the National Conference of State Legislatures, said it's time for Congress to step in.
"The federal government needs to do their job," he said.
Staff writer Rosalind S. Helderman and researcher Meg Smith contributed to this report.