Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry W. Kilgore said Monday that Virginia should not pay for centers to help day laborers, calling them the latest examples of society rewarding illegal immigrants.
Kilgore said the creation of publicly financed gathering areas such as the one proposed in Herndon undermines the rule of law and "denigrates" citizens who immigrated to the country legally.
"We face a fundamental decision in Virginia," Kilgore told reporters in a conference call. "Will we reward illegal behavior with hard-earned dollars from law-abiding citizens? I say the answer to this question should be an easy one: No."
With three months left until the Nov. 8 election, Kilgore's comments injected a volatile issue into the statewide campaign. By objecting to the proposed day laborer site in Herndon, Kilgore transformed an issue for 23,000 residents of Herndon into a statewide debate on questions that encompass law and ethnicity.
Supporters say creating worker sites with public funds represents the best hope to resolve the community disputes that arise when day laborers congregate at informal hiring sites, such as convenience store parking lots. But the idea of the subsidized centers has become a flash point for people who object to some of the changes they believe immigration has brought to neighborhoods and downtowns.
Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, a lobbyist who represents immigrant groups, said that Kilgore "seems determined to lead from ignorance" and that he is "playing to the tune of fear mongers and worse."
Loudoun County Supervisor Eugene A. Delgaudio (R-Sterling), whose district is near the proposed Herndon site, praised Kilgore for making sure the state "will not assist in the perpetration of an illegal act."
Kilgore also endorsed proposed state legislation to give local police broad authority to detain people for immigration violations after they have been arrested for another crime.
Proponents of that position have said states must step in where the federal government has failed to enforce immigration law. Opponents, including some local police officials, have said police departments cannot perform such tasks effectively.
Kilgore's opponents in the governor's race accused him of political opportunism.
A spokeswoman for Democratic Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine said Kilgore is "putting a political ideology over a practical solution."
State Sen. H. Russell Potts (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent, called Kilgore's position "a sound-bite, hot-button wedge issue . . . that takes people's minds off what the real issues are: transportation, education and health care."
State political observers and national experts on immigration said the move is bold but potentially risky for Kilgore, who had not previously highlighted his long-standing views on immigration. Across the country, local and state candidates are increasingly focused on that issue but with mixed success at the ballot box, they said.
"It's percolating up from below, as states are being forced more and more to deal with the consequences of federal failure to enforce the immigration laws," said Mike Hethmon, counsel for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which agrees with Kilgore about the centers.
"Candidates are naturally -- both for principled and expedient reasons -- tapping into the pervasive sense of frustration with the issue," Hethmon said.
Frank Sharry, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, which supports the day laborer sites, said Kilgore could "emerge as this decade's Pete Wilson," the former California governor whose Republican Party had its popularity decline after he became a symbol for a hard line on illegal immigration.
"When [Wilson] first started, it looked like it was a brilliant, if controversial, political strategy. It turned out to be a disaster," Sharry said. "It drove immigrants to the citizenship lines and the voting booth to vote against Republicans for a decade."
Aides to Kilgore said they are confident that the day laborer issue -- and Kilgore's tough stand against illegal immigration generally -- will help them counter Kaine's strength in the inner suburbs of Northern Virginia, which tend to support Democrats.
In the past several years, Kilgore has supported efforts to bar illegal immigrants from access to state services.
He led efforts to deny in-state tuition to illegal immigrants and supported efforts after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to tighten access to Virginia driver's licenses. Last year, he supported a law that will go into effect in January requiring local and state governments to check for legal status before offering benefits.
"There are millions of Americans who have immigrated here and have worked hard to follow the rules of our society," Kilgore said Monday. "We must also resolve never [to] undercut our laws and our stability by rewarding those who . . . are in this country illegally."
Robert D. Holsworth, director of the Center for Public Policy at Virginia Commonwealth University, said Kilgore's political approach is starkly different from that of recent candidates in both major parties.
He noted that Gov. Mark R. Warner (D) and his Republican opponent in 2001, Mark L. Earley, made serious efforts to court Hispanic voters and other immigrants. Both candidates went out of their way to speak Spanish when they could, Holsworth said. Earley often touted his time as a missionary in the Philippines.
"Kilgore has taken a very different tack," Holsworth said, adding that Kilgore is trying to tap into "populist anger at what he believes is looking the other way about illegal immigration. He believes it politically advantageous in Northern Virginia to highlight this issue and make it a central part of his campaign."