- Associated Press - Friday, January 20, 2017

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Three bills that would help undocumented immigrants, and one that would hurt them, have been introduced in the Virginia General Assembly as state legislators tackle an issue that loomed large during the presidential election.

HB 1857 would protect in-state tuition for undocumented students, while HB 2001 seeks to root out such students from Virginia’s public colleges and universities. HB 1682 would allow undocumented immigrants to get temporary driver’s licenses, as long as they are paying taxes and have auto insurance. Finally, HB 1779 would expand the state’s definition of a hate crime to violence based on someone’s immigration status.

The flurry of legislation comes at a time when civil rights groups say there has been an increase in assaults and abuse against undocumented immigrants. They see a correlation between the hostile climate and the rhetoric of President Trump.

“This has happened at a higher rate since Trump got elected,” Rodrigo Velasquez, field coordinator for the Virginia Latina Advocacy Network, said as he participated in the Virginia Day of Student Resistance on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“Even today, we had a rally with New Virginia Majority. And as the students were rallying, some of the people at the General Assembly were wearing ‘Make America Great Again’ hats and chanting, ‘Build the wall, build the wall,’” Velasquez said.

“So it’s obviously targeted, and it has a specific intent. But until now, it hasn’t been a categorical hate crime where the targeting of someone based on their immigration status would have a more severe penalty.”

HB 1779, sponsored by Del. Kenneth R. Plum, D-Reston, would change that. It would label violent acts against undocumented immigrants as hate crimes, which would carry a stiffer penalty. The bill would recognize someone’s status as an undocumented immigrant as a legitimate basis for being a victim of hate crimes involving assault, battery or trespass with the purpose of damaging property.

HB 1682, sponsored by Delegate Robert S. Bloxom, Jr., R-Mappsville, would grant driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants living in Virginia. The bill would allow undocumented immigrants to receive temporary licenses for one year, as long as the applicant “has established residency in the Commonwealth, has filed an income tax return with the Commonwealth, has registered with the Department of Homeland Security” and can provide proof of a car insurance policy.

Velasquez said the Virginia Department of Motor Vehicles has studied the impact of such policies in other states. He said DMV found that “road safety actually increased when folks have driver’s licenses, and that they actually stick around in instances of accidents.”

Without a legal way to drive in Virginia, undocumented workers often flee the scene of an accident because they fear getting detained and deported, Velasquez said.

In states where undocumented immigrants can obtain driver’s licenses, they “actually stayed at the scenes of accidents to make sure that they do all the proper reporting and filing with the insurance companies,” Velasquez said.

HB 1682 may have an uncertain fate in the General Assembly. On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee voted 7-6 to kill a similar bill (SB 1345). It would have allowed undocumented immigrants to apply for a “driver privilege card.”

In addition, two House bills would affect undocumented students attending the state’s institutions of higher education.

HB 1857 would allow undocumented students to pay in-state tuition in Virginia. The bill seeks to help immigrants who have been protected from deportation by President Obama’s 2012 executive order called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals. President Trump has said he will revoke DACA during his first 100 days in office.

The affected students are often called DREAMers, after a proposed federal law that would have given them legal residency.

Under Obama’s DACA order, DREAMers qualify for in-state tuition. HB 1857, sponsored by Del. Alfonso H. Lopez, D-Arlington, would ensure that continues if Trump overturns DACA. Otherwise, undocumented students attending college would have to pay international student rates, which are often two to three times as much as in-state tuition.

While Lopez has filed a bill that would assist undocumented students, Del. Charles R. Poindexter, R-Glade Hill, is sponsoring a measure that targets them. HB 2001 would allow federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers to enter public college campuses and require schools to help identify and apprehend DREAMers.

Poindexter’s bill would undercut efforts by students around the state to establish “sanctuary campuses.” Since Trump’s election, student organizations have urged college administrators to declare their campuses as sanctuaries for DREAMers. This means that the school’s faculty would work to protect such students and would refuse to provide sensitive information about them to ICE.

Committees in the House of Delegates will consider the bills during the coming week. HB 1857 and HB 2001 have been assigned to the House Education Committee; HB 1682 is being considered by the House Transportation Committee; and HB 1779 is before the House Courts of Justice Committee.

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