Facing Uncertain Immigration Policy, Virginia Immigrants Looked To General Assembly for Help

After attempting to end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which protected many young immigrants, the Trump administration is now forced by federal courts to resume taking applications for renewals. But before action was taken, young, Virginia immigrants were worried about losing their driver’s licenses, not being able to afford higher education and possibly having to face deportation if DACA ended.

Without out any signs that the Trump administration was going to help them, they turned to the state government.

Maria Ortiz, a George Mason University student, pleaded with the General Assembly to approve driver’s licenses for undocumented immigrants. She recalled an experience her family had when her brother had his first epileptic seizure. Since her parents did not have driving permission, it took them hours to reach the hospital to see him.

Because many parts of Virginia have inadequate public transportation, cars may be the only way to get around in some areas. Two bills would have authorized the issuance of a driver’s privilege card, which would be different than a state driver’s license. Sen. Scott Surovell, D-Mount Vernon, argued that the legislation would help improve public safety and tax revenue.

The bills failed early in the session.

Under DACA, childhood arrivals were able to receive in-state tuition in Virginia because of a decision by Attorney General Mark Herring. For students like Jessica Moreno Caycho, the decision was the difference between attending, and not attending a university. As the fate of DACA was uncertain for more than 10,000 Virginia recipients, Caycho and others asked legislators to allow current recipients to keep receiving in-state tuition no matter the federal decision.

Many of these young adults go through public grade school the same other residents. Sen. David Marsden, D-Burke, who sponsored one of the bills, said that the state had already made too big of an investment in these children not to allow them to continue their education. 

The bills also failed early in the session.

Del. Elizabeth Guzman, D-Prince William, came to the United States from Peru as a single mother, looking for a better future for her daughter. This year, she introduced legislation that would prevent law enforcement officers or other agents from inquiring into the immigration status of any person who reports that they are a victim of a crime.

The bill was left in committee without a hearing.

Instead, the General Assembly took a very different approach on immigration, and handed Gov. Ralph Northam a bill that would ban so-called “sanctuary cities,” localities defined by their unwillingness to share residents information with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

Although Norham has already pledged to veto the bill, if the bill became law Virginia would not see any changes. No locality in Virginia is defined as a “sanctuary city.” But supporters of the bill said it would put Virginia in line with federal policies and prevent localities from implementing sanctuary laws in the future.

“There are no sanctuary cities in Virginia, and this is a solution in search of a problem,” said Charlotte Gomer, a representative from the governor’s office. “We should support state and local law enforcement with the resources they need rather than deputizing them to take on the duties of federal immigration agents.”