Capital News Service
On party-line votes in a packed hearing room, a House subcommittee has endorsed a legislative package that Republicans said will curb illegal immigration, but opponents said may unfairly punish undocumented residents and promote discrimination.
The immigration subcommittee of the House Courts of Justice Committee approved bills to make Virginia’s public colleges and universities spell out their policies against enrolling illegal immigrants, have the Virginia State Police enforce federal immigration laws, require public contractors to verify that their employees are legal U.S. residents and check the immigration status of everyone arrested in Virginia.
Most of the bills were endorsed on 4-2 votes, with Republicans voting yes and Democrats voting no.
Nearly every seat in the 204-person-capacity room was taken, and a Capitol Police officer stood watchfully over the proceedings, as the subcommittee considered 17 immigration-related bills on Friday. Thirteen of the proposals were approved (or were folded into related bills and then approved); they now will be considered by the full House Courts of Justice Committee.
Delegate Jackson Miller, R-Manassas, reflected the tenor of the Republican majority on the subcommittee in arguing for the employment verification requirement.
“The issue is being framed as one of meanness,” Miller said. “It’s not. If you’re here illegally, I want you to leave. I welcome you back legally with open arms.”
About half the audience applauded; they were called out of order by the subcommittee chairman, Delegate Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock.
The legislation’s opponents were equally impassioned. Danny Navarro of the Latino Student Alliance at the University of Virginia, for example, testified against the proposal to prohibit illegal immigrants from enrolling in state colleges and universities.
“This bill is an attempt to stunt the academic growth of undocumented citizens,” Navarro said.
Gilbert opened the five-hour hearing by admonishing all present to be civil.
“I know these are issues of great importance to a lot of people in the room,” he said. “The two things we’re going to have today are order and civility. I’m going to try to enforce that at all times.”
College Enrollment: HB 1465
House Bill 1465, sponsored by Delegate Christopher Peace, R-Mechanicsville, would require public colleges and universities to have written rules against enrolling “an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”
Peace said most state schools already have such a policy: “They don’t have to do anything but put it in writing.”
The subcommittee folded into Peace’s measure HB 2153, sponsored by Delegate Ben Cline, R-Amherst. Cline’s proposal would make illegal immigrants ineligible for in-state tuition.
A long line of groups testified against the legislation. They ranged from Jews United for Justice to the Virginia Catholic Conference.
“We have earned the right to compete for admission,” Navarro said. “The immigration laws fail to address the ‘dreamers’ ” – the children of illegal immigrants who were brought here as young children and have grown up believing themselves to be Americans.
Juan Milanés of the Hispanic Bar Association agreed.
“These kids are dreamers because, more than anything, they want to be like you and me,” Milanés said. “These kids are trying to be here as productive members of society. They are not asking for an extra leg up.”
Gilbert responded, “The issue is finite resources. There are not enough slots in our public colleges and universities for our kids right now.”
“Who’s ‘our kids?’ ” Milanés shot back.
Claire Guthrie Castañaga, speaking for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, said HB 1465 sends the message, “Hey, you have no opportunities after high school.”
Peace said undocumented aliens could still pay out-of-state tuition: “To say that this bill cuts off educational opportunity is hyperbole.”
After the discussion, the subcommittee voted 4-2 in favor of HB 1465.
Immigration Checks: HB 1430
This bill, sponsored by Delegate David B. Albo, R-Fairfax, would ensure that police check the immigration status of everyone arrested in Virginia. A similar measure – HB 2332, by Delegate Scott Lingamfelter, R-Woodbridge – was rolled into HB 1430.
“My intent is that everybody who gets arrested gets checked,” Albo said. “Some sheriffs are only checking those who get bond or who are released on their own recognizance.”
Albo said the legislation would target just people being arrested: “We’re not seeking to do immigration checks on people on the street – only that everyone who gets taken before a magistrate gets checked.”
Many groups that opposed other legislation before the immigration subcommittee had no problem with HB 1430.
“It doesn’t go into effect unless there is probable cause for a warrant or a magistrate has seen the person,” Castañaga said.
“It’s not a situation where a police officer picks someone up because ‘they don’t look right.’”
Still, some immigration advocates said they want to make sure that police don’t use the legislation as a pretext to ask people to prove they are legal residents.
The subcommittee voted 5-1 for HB 1430. Delegate Patrick A. Hope, D-Arlington, was the lone dissenter.