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2015 Legislative Session a Mixed Bag for Immigrants

March 24, 2015

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By Stefani Zenteno Rivadineira
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – About 20 state legislators and representatives of immigrant advocacy groups have formed the New Americans Caucus to address the needs of undocumented residents and other immigrants.

The caucus was organized during the recent session of the General Assembly, where lawmakers already meet in caucuses devoted to various political views, issues and geographic areas.

The New Americans Caucus heard from guest speakers such as an immigration lawyer and the head of the Department of Motor Vehicles to help educate members about matters concerning immigrants.

“Next year we will know a lot more, and we will be ready to put in a number of pieces of legislation,” said Del. Kaye Kory, D-Falls Church.

The 2015 General Assembly session was a mixed bag for advocates of undocumented immigrants in Virginia. On one hand, legislation that would have allowed such immigrants to get driver’s licenses didn’t pass, but bills that would have hurt immigrants didn’t pass either.

The Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations and the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia worked hard to defeat bills they considered anti-immigrant:

  • HB 1328, introduced by Del. Mark Cole, R-Fredericksburg, would have required public school principals to determine the citizenship and immigration status of each enrolled student. The ACLU opposed the bill, arguing it would violate the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The bill died in the House Courts of Justice Committee.
  • Two bills would have eliminated in-state tuition at Virginia’s public colleges and universities for immigrants who qualify under the federal government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. DACA exempts from deportation certain undocumented immigrants who entered the United States before age 16.

Currently, institutions of higher education have the option to grant in-state tuition to DACA students. HB 1356, introduced by Del. David Ramadan, R-South Riding, and SB 722, introduced by Sen. Richard Black, R-Leesburg, would have prohibited schools from doing so.

Black argued that the current policy is unfair to U.S. citizens.

“Granting in-state tuition moves illegal immigrants to the front of the line,” the senator wrote in a post on Facebook. “For every unlawful person who get[s] in-state tuition, there will be an American who can’t go to college in Virginia and that’s unfair. Every time you give free stuff to people here illegally, you have to take it away from an American.”

Attorney General Mark Herring issued a statement about SB 722 after the Senate Education and Health Committee voted 8-7 to advance the bill to the floor.

“The senators who voted for this measure should meet some of the young people they are trying to punish. They are bright, hard-working young people, including valedictorians, who have attended Virginia schools,” Herring said.

Herring pointed out that when Bob McDonnell, a Republican, was attorney general, McDonnell agreed that DACA students may receive in-state tuition because they are “lawfully present” in the U.S.

The ACLU also opposed the legislation. “These students live here, attend Virginia high schools and pay Virginia taxes; they are Virginians in every meaningful respect.” ACLU said in a statement. “This legislation undermines the basic American principles of fairness, equality and opportunity.”

HB 1356 died in the House Education Committee, and SB 722 was defeated, 19-20, in the Senate.

The Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations considered the bills’ defeat a huge victory.

“Political leaders who used to support anti-immigrant legislation are realizing the importance of immigrant communities in their districts and to their reelection efforts,” said Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, who chairs the coalition.

On the other hand, the only two pro-immigrant bills introduced for the 2015 legislative session died quickly as well. Both measures had been sponsored by Kory.

HB 1478 would have explicitly declared DACA students eligible for in-state tuition. Kory filed the bill to counter HB 1356 and SB 722.

“I wasn’t going to introduce the bill because we had thought it was not politically opportune, and we didn’t want to challenge the AG’s ruling,” Kory said. “But Del. Ramadan and Sen. Black introduced bills that would take away benefits DACA students have, and that made me so mad that I put my bill back in again just to counter theirs.”

HB 1478 died in the House Education Committee.

Kory also introduced HB 2185, which would have authorized DMV to provide temporary driver’s licenses, permits and special identification cards to undocumented immigrants.

“People who are here permanently in an undocumented status are going drive because that’s the only way they’re going to get to work,” Kory said. “Maryland and D.C. are doing that, so I decided it was time for us to talk about that.”

Kory noted that people with political asylum, who are here legally, don’t have driver’s licenses. “I had a letter from a gentleman in Arlington who was in that situation. And so for two years, he hadn’t been able to drive, and he wasn’t done with the process,” she said.

DMV and other state agencies did not oppose HB 2185, Kory said. But according to Kory, a key member of the House Courts of Justice Committee said the bill sounded too much like giving driving privileges to illegal immigrants – and so it died in the committee.

She was disappointed, but she plans to introduce the legislation again next year.

Kory received a lot of support on immigration issues not just from Hispanic organizations but also from groups like the Asian American Chamber of Commerce and ProgressVA, which represents low-income Virginians.

“Everyone who’s undocumented is not necessarily Hispanic,” Kory said.