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Virginia Tightens Bills on Residency

Legislature Debates Illegal Immigration

Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), left, talks with Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) in Richmond. Saslaw says immigration bills that are punitive will face hurdles in the Senate.
Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City), left, talks with Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) in Richmond. Saslaw says immigration bills that are punitive will face hurdles in the Senate. (By Steve Helber -- Associated Press)
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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 20, 2008; Page C01

RICHMOND -- Many candidates for the Virginia General Assembly campaigned last year on a pledge to curb the state's illegal immigrant population. But two weeks into the legislative session, many of the more than 100 immigration-related bills that have been introduced go even further and could penalize those living in the country legally.

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One bill would require that driver's license exams be conducted in English. Another would force people applying for a driver's license to show proof of U.S. citizenship. And several bills would declare English as Virginia's official language.

"Virginia's legislators claim that they only want to crack down on undocumented immigrants and that they welcome those immigrants who 'play by the rules.' That's what they say," said Tim Freilich, legal director for the Virginia Justice Center for Farm and Immigrant Workers. "Then they turn around and introduce these bills that directly attack Virginia's lawfully present immigrants."

But Del. Jackson H. Miller (R-Manassas), who has introduced several of the bills, including one that calls for defendants to pay for language interpreters in court if convicted, said that legal immigrants are not being targeted.

"They're welcome. That is not what the issue is about," he said. "The issue is about the rule of law and fairness."

The number of immigration bills in the 60-day legislative session is the highest in recent years and, some lawmakers say, is more than the total addressing any other topic, including the abusive-driving fees and mental health reform.

House members have introduced more than 100 immigration bills; senators had filed about 25 as of Friday, the deadline for legislators to file bills for the season.

Republicans across the state, and some Democrats in conservative districts, seized on illegal immigration last year before the November election, announcing proposals to curb illegal immigration. Much of the debate was in Northern Virginia, including Prince William County, where officials are planning to curtail government services to illegal immigrants and increase enforcement.

"It's ground zero," said freshman Del. Paul F. Nichols (D-Prince William), who has introduced several immigration bills. "It was a hotbed issue. I got elected on a promise that I would dissuade illegal immigrants from coming into Prince William County. Illegal is illegal. If you're going to have laws, which we do, and you're not going to have enforcement of them, then you've got a failure."

But some House members say they know their efforts will be thwarted by the newly Democrat-controlled Senate and Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D), who has said that immigration policy should be left largely to the federal government.

Senate Democrats list immigration as one of their six priorities for the legislative session, but Majority Leader Richard L. Saslaw (D-Fairfax) said bills that are punitive will face a tough road in the Senate.

Last year, lawmakers proposed more than 50 bills dealing with immigration. Only seven were sent to Kaine for his signature. Many of the bills died in the Senate after being passed by the House, which was controlled by moderate Republicans who often collaborated with Democrats.

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