Mohamed Gula, Executive Director for Emgage in Virginia and a former Sunday school teacher, remembers discussing hate and bullying with his pupils. He said when they reached that part of the curriculum, he always started with two questions.
“The first question being, raise your hand if you or anyone that you know has ever been a victim of a hate crime. Automatically about 80 percent of the room always raised their hands,” said Gula. “The second question would be raise your hand if you or anyone you know has ever been a victim of bullying, and in most cases, 100 percent of the hands would go up.”
Hate crimes are defined in the Code of Virginia as crimes motivated by race, religion or ethnicity. In its most recent report, the Virginia Department of State Police reported 155 hate crimes in 2015. However, a federal report released by the Department of Justice showed more than half of hate crimes go unreported.
There are currently four bills seeking to expand the definition of a hate crime in the General Assembly this year. They will expand it by including disability, gender, sexual orientation and gender identification.
Driver’s license and in-state tuition for immigrants are also issues on the agenda for this legislative session.
“Driving is a basic necessity in the state of Virginia, many localities through the Commonwealth have limited access to public transportation,” said Gustavo Angeles from New Virginia Majority. “Driving is often the only and most efficient way for people to move around.”
Angeles believes broader access to driver’s licenses will allow thousands of Virginia residents to become more active members of their community. He said these residents would also become safer drivers, having passed the state’s driving test.
“Currently Virginia law authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue eight-year licenses to only Virginia citizens and permanent residents who hold green cards,” said Del. Jennifer Boysko. “They also allow limited duration licenses to only certain groups of aliens who are lawfully in the United States.”
The three earliest states to expand access to driver’s licenses have seen a greater than 30 percent drop in traffic fatalities since 1994, compared to the nationwide 20 percent drop, according to The Commonwealth Institute.
For younger members of the community, eyes are on expanding in-state tuition for immigrant students.
Juan Hernandez, co-president of Tech DREAMers at Virginia Tech, said that for him, and many of his friends, attending a university would not have been a possibility without the option of in-state tuition.
“Several of us never even attempted to apply to university until in-state tuition was actually a possibility for us due to several programs that President Obama enacted as well the decision by Mark Herring,” said Hernandez.
The average cost of in-state tuition at a public institution is $6,752 and the average out-of-state tuition is $15,742, according to a study done by George Washington University. To attend the University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University or James Madison University, it would cost an average of $18,000 more for a student paying out-of-state tuition.
“I have had several friends who have already had to drop out and have to devote themselves to hours of working just to be able to afford one more semester,” said Hernandez.