BY MARKUS SCHMIDT
Virginia’s Hispanic community will be looking with anticipation toward Washington this week, where a bipartisan group in the Senate is expected to unveil a broad measure tackling immigration reform.
“We are energized and optimistic that Congress will pass reform that includes a short and direct path to citizenship,” said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, chairman of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.
No matter how far-reaching the bill will be, its potential impact on Virginia’s economy and social fabric will be felt statewide, from the construction-heavy communities along the Beltway to the rural areas of the commonwealth.
With more than 911,000 foreign-born residents in 2010 — most of them of Hispanic origin — Virginia had the ninth-largest immigrant population in the United States.
“One of the reasons why the Virginia economy is relatively strong is that we have a good talent pool. Some of that is our education system, some of it is attracting talented people,” Sen. Timothy M. Kaine, D-Va., said in an interview last week.
“At the end of the day, that should be the No. 1 principle on immigration reform — we want to continue to be the magnet for talent,” he said.
A clear majority of Americans — about 70 percent — support options allowing immigrants living here illegally to remain in the country with some form of legal status, according to a bipartisan Hart Research poll from January. But results vary widely when such reform includes the possibility of citizenship.
A poll released last month by the Public Religion Research Institute and the Brookings Institution shows 63 percent of Americans believe immigrants who are here illegally should qualify for citizenship if they meet certain criteria.
According to a more recent poll by the Pew Research Center, only 43 percent said they would give citizenship to the immigrants, while 24 percent would allow them to stay as permanent residents without citizenship status.
Kaine said that when the measures make it to the Senate floor, he intends to be vocal in supporting them. “We haven’t done any meaningful reform since the second Reagan term, and it’s time to really deal with some of these issues,” he said.
House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-7th, said Friday on CNBC that he hopes Congress will get something done. “It’s all about balancing the tradition of our being a country of immigrants,” he said.
“Most of us came here because our ancestors made a decision, were lucky enough to do so, and to build a new life and create dreams here,” Cantor said. “I think you balance that with the notion that we are a country of laws. We have to make sure that we uphold the laws and evenly apply them,” he said.
While many Virginians welcome legal immigration, others are concerned with the number of foreigners who enter the country illegally.
Prince William County, for example, requires police to investigate the immigration status of everyone arrested and accused of violating state or local laws.
“It’s considered the toughest immigration-enforcement policy in the United States right now,” said Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors and one of six Republicans seeking the party’s nomination for lieutenant governor.
Stewart said that since the ordinance was implemented in 2007, the county has handed 6,000 immigrants over to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security for deportation. “We had not one instance of racial profiling,” Stewart said, adding that, as lieutenant governor, he would seek to extend his county’s model statewide.
Stewart doesn’t deny the need for immigration reform — but his ideas differ from the proposals lingering in the Senate.
“We’re not screening illegals for their criminal background and we are not allowing enough talent to come in. There is no question that there is a need for reform,” Stewart said.
A first step, Stewart said, would be to identify immigrants living in the commonwealth without permission and deport them.
One of these immigrants is Fairfax County resident Dayana Torres, 18, a student at George Mason University. The native of Bogota, Colombia, came to Virginia with her parents and older sister on a tourist visa when she was 9 and never left.
Until high school, Torres did not know her immigration status. “When I found out, I was very ashamed of it,” she said. “I didn’t want to think about it and kept it very low-key.”
Torres wants to be a computer programmer. She has volunteered at her local library and hospital and speaks fluent English.
When she tells people that she has no legal status, some call her a criminal. “That still hurts,” she said. “How is a 9-year-old a criminal?”
Torres said she has faith in Congress to pass immigration reform, but that a path to citizenship won’t be easy. “I think they will make us work very hard for citizenship and make us wait longer. I’m completely fine with that,” she said.
Torres added that she and her parents always have worked and never applied for government benefits. “A lot of us work very hard. We go to school. We have dreams and want to benefit this country, not take from it without giving back,” she said.
Households headed by unauthorized immigrants in Virginia paid $165.3 million in state and local taxes in 2010, according to data by the Institute for Taxation and Economic Policy.
Michel Zajur, president and CEO of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said allowing unauthorized immigrants to become citizens would boost the economy.
“The Hispanic community has very high work ethics. They are not here to take handouts, they are here because they want to build a future for their families,” Zajur said.
Agribusiness also relies heavily on the labor of skilled and unskilled immigrants — many of them guest workers — who raise tobacco in Southside Virginia and vegetable crops on the Eastern Shore.
“Immigration reform is one of our priority issues,” said Wilmer Stoneman, associate director of governmental relations with the Virginia Farm Bureau.
“Our members, especially those who use a lot of labor, certainly need workers who have legal status. This greatly affects labor that is available to it,” Stoneman said.
The key issue lawmakers will continue to wrangle with this week is whether and when unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to apply for green cards, and whether to create a class of residents who would not be permitted to apply for citizenship.
Even Stewart showed his willingness to compromise and find a solution for unauthorized immigrants already in the country.
“If it could be demonstrated that they do not have a criminal past, that they are productive, and they add more to America than they take away, then by all means, find a way to get them to stay here legally,” he said Thursday.
Cantor said that at least the children of unauthorized immigrants should be allowed to become citizens.
“We should act first, if we can’t do anything else, make sure that the kids who are here, unbeknownst to them, brought here, know no other place as home, we should be providing them citizenship,” Cantor said. “And I do think that on a longer spectrum, we can work something out.”