One word that wasn’t uttered in Wednesday’s debate between Democrat Terry McAuliffe and Republican Kenneth T. Cuccinelli II?
After a summer of intense debate over a bill that would grant a pathway to citizenship for people in the country illegally, the issue has now flown almost completely under the radar in the Virginia governor’s race even as new data show the state’s foreign-born population is playing an increasingly critical role in its economy.
Immigrant workers living in Virginia are outpacing their U.S.-born counterparts in several work-related categories, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis, a left-leaning fiscal and economic policy analysis group based in Richmond.
More than 72 percent of foreign-born Virginians 16 years old or older had a job or were actively looking for one last year, compared to about 64 percent of native-born Virginians. Immigrants also outpaced U.S.-born Virginians in the percentage who hold bachelor’s degrees and in median income.
“As state and federal lawmakers consider policies that affect immigrants, failing to acknowledge the key contributions of Virginia’s immigrants will only keep us from reaching our full economic potential and maximizing the current and future prosperity of all who call the commonwealth home,” wrote Sara Okos, the group’s policy director.
In July, during the first debate between Mr. McAuliffe, a former chairman of the Democratic National Committee and Mr. Cuccinelli, the state’s Republican attorney general, both were asked about a bill in the U.S. Senate that would provide a path to citizenship to the approximately 11 million people currently in the country illegally.
Mr. McAuliffe said that as governor, one of his “finest hours” would be if he were to sign the Dream Act, a bill that would allow children who came to the country with their parents to pay in-state tuition at Virginia colleges.
“It goes back to the core basic issue of treating people with fairness, making people feel welcome, making sure Virginia is an open, a welcoming, state,” he said. “It’s important for our nation and it’s important to all the folks in this country today who we want to give them a pathway to citizenship.”
In 2007, however, during a separate high-stakes federal debate over the hot-button issue, Mr. McAuliffe sang a different tune.
“We gotta shut these borders down, absolutely. These people shouldn’t be coming in this country,” Mr. McAuliffe told a California radio station. “We need to — have to — enforce our border protections.”
“I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or a Republican, we all agree you’ve got to shut the borders down, people who are coming into this nation taking our jobs,” he said.
After those comments resurfaced during the summer, Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign said that he has consistently talked about providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants and not people who have broken the law while in the United States and that there’s a consensus on the importance of border security.
Mr. Cuccinelli said during the first debate that he’d like to see a compromise reached and that “it would be nice to get this off the table so we can move on to other issues,” but he declined to take a position on a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants.
Mr. McAuliffe’s campaign has tried to seize on some of Mr. Cuccinelli’s past positions on immigration, such as his supporting a measure that would bar children of illegal immigrants from attending state colleges.
But the Republican tried to turn the tables on Mr. McAuliffe during the debate by pointing to the Democrat’s championing the EB-5 visa program, which allows foreign investors to put up between $500,000 and $1 million in job-creating American businesses in exchange for green cards and, ultimately, U.S. citizenship. GreenTech Automotive, Inc., a car company Mr. McAuliffe helped found in 2009, has relied heavily on the program for capital.
“It’s an odd place for immigration to come in, but it’s the one that he has experience in,” Mr. Cuccinelli said.