A new documentary about the struggles in Prince William County, Virginia, provides a window into the lives and emotions of people on both sides of the immigration debate.
By Diego Graglia, FI2W web editor
This year’s elections showed that the use of immigration as a campaign issue apparently backfired for enforcement-only, hardline candidates. Now the results are starting to have an impact on policy: Virginia, where immigration laws are among the toughest in the nation, seems poised to radically alter its approach towards immigrants.
The Washington Post reported this week that the Virginia Commission on Immigration is about to send Gov. Timothy M. Kaine a set of recommendations, “most of which would help immigrants instead of penalizing them.”
Virginia was one of several traditionally-red states that swung Democratic this year. Latino voters there have been credited with helping President-elect Barack Obama win the state.
Now, “backlash at the voting booth” is cited as one reason for the new attitude towards immigrants, together with a lack of interest in the issue due to the economic crisis and “a clearer understanding of the state’s limitations on a largely federal issue,” The Post‘s Anita Kumar wrote.
Recommendations include shortening the Medicaid residency requirements for certain qualified immigrants, offering in-state tuition to immigrants who meet specific criteria and creating an immigration assistance office.
The commission considered but did not adopt proposals to force immigrants to carry special identification cards, allow hospitals to fingerprint patients who do not pay their bills and require proof of legal residence to be eligible for public assistance.
Reaction to Immigration Enforcement: Washington Post Portrays Dysfunctional System; LA Times Calls for Reform
Northern Virginia is one of the places where the immigration debate has been the most heated. In August, we reported on the effect of authorizing local law enforcement to inquire about the immigration status of people who are arrested. Due to stepped up enforcement the Latino population in the city of Manassas and Prince William County has plummeted.
There has also been a sharp increase in the number of people detained on immigration charges. Yesterday, the Washington Post -which has reported extensively on the immigration issue in the D.C. area- ran an article that provides a stark portrait of the system set up to deport those people.
Reporters Nick Miroff and Josh White write,
Illegal immigrants detained as part of the stepped-up enforcement effort in Virginia stay in the country far longer than they should because of a detention and deportation system beset by waste and dysfunction, according to lawyers, detainee accounts and observations of courtroom proceedings.
The article details the case of a legal immigrant from Paraguay who was kept in jail for 30 days “accused of lying about a two-decade-old criminal violation by federal agents who then misplaced his file.” He was then freed, but he told the newspaper he met inmates who had been at the Virginia Beach jail for five or ten months. His case was not an exception, the Post says,
During recent court proceedings before an immigration judge, in more than half the cases the government was missing detainee files, did not know where detainees were being held or failed to bring a detainee to a facility with proper videoconferencing equipment. In one instance, the government lost track of a nursing mother who had been separated from her newborn, thinking she was in a Hampton Roads jail; she was sitting in court a few feet away and wearing an electronic monitoring bracelet. In another case, Judge Wayne R. Iskra grew so frustrated over a detainee’s missing file that he berated the government prosecutor in open court, asking her, “How would you like to sit in jail for two more weeks?”
“The system is broken!” the judge said.
Even voluntary deportations –which we have written about before– have been problematic. One inmate apparently “has been waiting for eight months while his requests to be deported go unanswered.”
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Another big-city paper addressed immigration on Sunday: the Los Angeles Times ran an editorial in which it commended Immigration and Customs Enforcement for the recent raids that netted some 1,700 illegal immigrants convicted of crimes or linked to criminal gangs. However, the paper said, the raids also demonstrated the need for comprehensive immigration reform, including legalization for most of the 12 million people estimated to be in the country illegally.
The arrests apparently were surgical strikes, not a carpet bombing of communities where illegal immigrants reside peacefully or work to feed their families. Certainly they bear little resemblance to the disruptive raids on meatpacking plants, garment factories and other businesses with large, undocumented workforces. Those operations, which seem motivated by a desire to prove that the government is tough on illegal immigration, disrupt the lives of the very families that would be legalized under comprehensive reform legislation.
While approving of the arrests of “gangbangers, gunmen and child molesters,” the paper warned that “under the law, even illegal immigrants without criminal records can be detained and deported.
That reality complicates efforts to combine law enforcement and immigration control. No doubt many of the young men arrested in the sweep deserve the designation of gang member, but the term “gang associate” is disturbingly vague. As long as the defining characteristic of those arrested is their illegal status, even the most carefully designed dragnet risks pulling in innocent friends or relatives of gang members.
Offering a glimpse of Sen. Barack Obama’s acceptance speech at Invesco Field tomorrow in Denver, a top campaign official said Obama will announce an unprecedented effort to enroll new voters before the November election. Obama’s Latino Outreach Director, Temo Figueroa told Feet in 2 Worlds, “You’re going to be hearing tomorrow from Barack Obama the kick-off of the largest voter registration drive ever in a presidential campaign.”
Figueroa’s remarks followed a presentation to the Hispanic Caucus this morning in Denver where he characterized the resources the campaign will put into the program as, “mind boggling.”
“Tomorrow (in his speech accepting the Democratic presidential nomination) you are going to hear Sen. Barack Obama talk about voter registration and he’s going to mention some numbers that we’re going to be spending on voter registration through the month of September that will be mind boggling. That’s going to be a focus of his speech at Invesco,” Figueroa promised.
Figueroa also told FI2W that unlike past elections, the campaign will not “contract out” the job of registering voters.
“But we’re doing it in-house. We’re doing it with our own volunteers, with our own staff,” he said.
“We’re already making a dent,” he said. “The numbers are already showing what we’re doing in Virginia, what we’re doing in New Mexico, what we’re doing in Colorado and Nevada. It’s amazing.”
The Obama campaign’s emphasis on voter registration started even before Obama had won the primaries. On May 10th the campaign launched Vote for Change, a 50-state voter registration drive which was intended to lay the groundwork for a general election campaign.
“I believe the only way Barack Obama can win is we have to play in states we normally, as Democrats, never played in, and we have to bring new people in,” Figueroa said.
While Obama’s voter registration drive will target Americans all of backgrounds, the Obama campaign has previously pledged 20 million dollars on Latino outreach efforts including voter registration and paid media. The campaign has 400 Latino organizers and is training hundreds of volunteers to increase turnout among Latinos in key battleground states. In New Mexico alone, where an estimated 40,000 registered Latino voters didn’t got to the polls in 2004, Figueroa said the campaign has 29 field offices staffed by Latinos.
Stressing the point to the delegates at the Hispanic Caucus, Figueroa gave a Power Point presentation – complete with slides, maps and electoral math – that showed that Latinos can even make a difference in battleground states like Virginia if turnout is driven up just among currently registered voters. But he stressed repeatedly that even in Virginia there is a large group of unregistered Latinos that the campaign hopes to tap.
Acknowledging that many Latinos are still not familiar with Obama, Figueroa told the crowd that starting next week the campaign will go on air with Spanish-language ads in New Mexico, Nevada, Florida and Colorado to present Obama’s message and biography to Latino voters.