Virginia Strengthens Anti-Immigrant Stance

March 2, 2011

Though I now live in the perpetual grey wasteland that is a Midwestern winter, my thoughts turn frequently eastward to my home state of Virginia. Besides boasting a relatively milder winter season than the Midwest, it’s also the proud exporter of tobacco, ham and peanuts. (Making us also proud contributors to US rates of cancer, obesity and nut allergy.) In recent months, it’s added another exciting item to its list. No, it’s not the nationwide proliferation of Five Guys. I’m talking about immigration crackdown.

We've talked a bit about Virginia's approach to immigration laws in past Hyphen posts (here and here). Under the guise of reducing crime, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey A. Stewart (R-At Large) has been pushing for a statewide immigration policy that is based on the county’s law of requiring police officers to check the legal status of anyone arrested on suspicion of violating a state or local law.

In response to Stewart’s campaign for tighter immigration laws, Delegate L. Scott Lingamfelter (R-Prince William) introduced a bill in January that would make that law statewide. Current Virginia law only requires the legal status to be noted if someone is taken into custody at a jail.

(You can track the bill here.)

This action would make a lot more sense if illegal immigrants were running rampant in Prince William County, pillaging and looting in a frenzy of lawlessness. However, a study released last fall by the University of Virginia’s Center for Survey Research found that only about 6 percent of Prince William County’s crime was committed by illegal immigrants in 2009. Not exactly a significant majority.

(Full text of study here.)

But, the policy has had some effect in slowing the growth of the county’s Hispanic population -- a fact that Stewart is using to indicate the policy’s ‘success.’

While this all is going on in Prince William County, Virginia governor Bob McDonnell announced that work permits, called the Employment Authorization Document (EAD), would no longer be accepted as proof of legal residence. The EAD is issued by the US Citizenship and Immigration Services, and allows foreign nationals to work lawfully in the US for any employers.

In Virginia, the EAD is not enough proof of residence. It is held by many asylum seekers, refugees and foreign students. But because it can also be held by people who are in deportation proceedings, it seems that Governor McDonnell has decided that the best way to resolve that problem is to declare the document null and void for all of its holders, even those who are here legally.

The New York Times recently ran this story about Mohamed Mejri, a legal immigrant who is losing his limousine business because the Department of Motor Vehicles refused to renew his driver’s license on the grounds that he’s not a legal resident despite the fact that he has a federal judge’s ruling that he may remain in the US.

Governor McDonnell and the DMV insist that other documents will be accepted in lieu of the EAD, but an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer says that DMV clerks have been inconsistent in accepting alternative documents.

According to the article, when Mejri was first refused a new license, he went to five other DMV offices hoping his documents would be accepted there, but to no avail. “At one, a clerk requested the original court order granting his petition against deportation. It took eight weeks, but he produced it. A copy was faxed to [a special immigration center in] Richmond, but it had no effect. He was never rejected outright, he said, and was asked repeatedly for alternate proof of legal presence.”

There is no question that Mejri is legally allowed to be in the US. The problem is that many transactions require a valid driver’s license as proof of residence. But when EADs are not accepted for licenses to be renewed, Mejri and hundreds of other immigrants find themselves mired in limbo. Never mind that the EAD is a federal government-issued document and that the immigrants are in the country legally. Without a clear pathway to citizenship, legal immigrants like Mejri cannot make a livelihood because their work permits are not enough.

This is hardly the sort of situation I envision when legislators talk about comprehensive immigration reform. What kind of reform is this, when part of a policy’s success is based on reducing the Hispanic population? What kind of reform means that a state can reject government-issued work permits, thereby stranding people who are legally present in our country?

Compared to what these immigrants are going through in Virginia, a few more months of absurd Midwestern winter weather (see: thundersnow) don’t seem quite so bad after all.

Photo of Corey A. Stewart from