Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore spoke yesterday in Chantilly to a group of Hispanic business owners from Virginia, reaffirming his opposition to taxpayer-funded day-laborer centers, which he said will support "illegal immigration."
Kilgore fanned local and national tensions about immigration policy more than two weeks ago when he opposed Herndon's plans -- since approved -- to publicly fund a center where workers can congregate as they seek day jobs. Presuming that many day laborers in the town are undocumented immigrants, Kilgore said yesterday that providing such services to them can "denigrate the achievements of our legal immigrants."
"It lets our new citizens think there is no reason to follow the law," Kilgore said. Illegal immigrants should not be allowed "to cut in line" for public services.
Kilgore received mainly a warm reception from the two dozen audience members, many of them entrepreneurs who applauded loudly during his 30-minute speech. The Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, based in Richmond, sponsored the nonpartisan meet-the-candidate event. The group met with Kilgore's Democratic opponent, Lt. Gov Timothy M. Kaine, who speaks fluent Spanish, in late April. The chamber also plans to schedule a session with H. Russell Potts Jr., a Republican state senator from Winchester who is running as an independent.
Kilgore's strong opposition to illegal immigration is long-standing. As state attorney general, he endorsed denying in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants and restricting their access to Virginia driver's licenses. He also supported a law that will require local and state governments to check the legal status of anyone older than 19 who applies for public benefits. It goes into effect in January.
Kilgore has staked out his position as politicians across the country deal with immigration policy issues. Prompted by the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, President Bush is weighing immigration law changes that would tighten the country's borders but address citizenship questions about the estimated 11 million illegal immigrants in the United States.
Jo-Ann Chase, an Ashburn real estate broker and native of Puerto Rico who attended yesterday's address, called Kilgore "a man of incredible fortitude" for his stand on immigration.
The theme Kilgore chose for his remarks was "opportunity." Highlighting his childhood as the son of a welder and a part-time drugstore clerk in rural Scott County, he said he and his twin brother, Del. Terry G. Kilgore (R-Scott), became the first in their family to graduate from college.
He said the government is obligated to provide educational opportunities, although he stopped short of saying all opportunities should be afforded to undocumented new arrivals regardless of their age.
Of day-laborer centers, Kilgore said he could support them only as long as all of the workers using them are documented. "I know this is a tough issue. It's an emotional issue," he said.
His position on the centers contrasts with that of Kaine, who has maintained that they are local matters. The larger questions of illegal immigration are strictly in the federal purview, he has said.
Ricardo Cabellos, 30, of Loudoun County sat in the front row, declining to clap with the crowd, and challenged Kilgore on several points.
Cabellos, who described himself in an interview as a community activist, asked how Kilgore could promote opportunity and deny young immigrants in-state college tuition. "These kids came here without a choice. These are children who want to go to college," Cabellos said.
Kilgore said undocumented immigrants don't "meet Virginia residency requirements" for in-state tuition. Allowing them in-state tuition could open the state up to lawsuits from out-of-state students demanding the same treatment, he said.
In an interview, Kilgore said providing a free education to elementary and high school students is different. The state is obligated to provide every school-aged child, regardless of legal status, an education, he said.
Kilgore and his audience agreed on the need to fight gangs as well as create tax breaks and more programs for minority and female business owners. He told the group that the contributions of Hispanic businesses in Virginia "are not widely reported."
The state ranked 10th in the country in the number of Hispanic-owned businesses, he said.