I arrived at Southwood Mobile Home Park through the back entrance, an unmarked driveway off Old Lynchburg Road just past the Albemarle County Police Department offices. It’s so easy to miss that, even though I’d been there before, I drove past the turn and had to double back to catch the narrow access road, which leads over a rise into a different world. A mature oak grove, dotted with metal-sided trailer homes stretched as far as I could see in every direction.
I hung a right down a side road, past trailers adorned with Mexican flags, home to miniature vegetable gardens and pickup trucks with soccer team stickers in the windows, and stopped at a nondescript rust brown trailer parked next to a derelict food truck.
A young man wearing a dress shirt, slacks, and a tie stepped out on the porch to meet me. Richard Aguilar is a 21-year-old straight-A student going into his senior year at James Madison University. Southwood is where he grew up and where nearly 1,000 Latinos, mostly undocumented, live in Albemarle County.
Richard and I had spoken in person once before, and we would spend the next hour and a half walking around the mobile home park, talking about what it was like to grow up there, and talking about why the place is a living, breathing reason for immigration reform.
“I saw a lot of things. I saw the gangs. I saw the drugs. I saw the prostitution,” Aguilar said. “I don’t blame Southwood for being like that, I actually blame society for letting a neighborhood like that exist.”
Aguilar is a U.S. citizen born in South Central Los Angeles to undocumented immigrants from El Salvador. There are around 11.5 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S. today and last year a record 396,906 people were deported by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The U.S. government spent about $17 billion on immigration enforcement and created a 3 percent dent in the problem. Meanwhile families all over America in places like Southwood, live in total fear.
Doug Ford is the director of the Immigration Law Clinic at UVA School of Law and handles cases for the immigration advocacy program at the Legal Aid Justice Center in Charlottesville. Here’s how he sums up the legal situation facing undocumented immigrants.
“Basically you are deportable every single day you are here,” Ford said. “If an officer doesn’t like you and puts you into the system, unless you have some amazing claim to hold you here, there’s almost no way to get you out. Because you are deportable, it’s just at the discretion of ICE how to use its resources.”
The country is at a decision point. Unemployment is high, politics polarized, and immigration is a touchstone. So often, the conversation around immigration centers on abstract talking points. Amnesty versus the rule of law. Black and white. But the issue already exists in shades of gray, impacting almost every aspect of life in the Latino community.
“I grew up in that lifestyle knowing that my parents weren’t citizens, that they couldn’t live in the United States, that they faced the threat of deportation any day,” Aguilar said. “If my mom got pulled over for running a stop sign, or if my dad did something, I could never see them again, despite the fact that I was born in the United States. That’s a horrible feeling.”
Here are some more numbers to consider. The Pew Hispanic Center (PHC) estimates that there are 200,000 undocumented immigrants in Virginia, 12th most in the nation. According to the U.S. Census, Charlottesville and Albemarle County are home to about 7,000 Latinos, somewhere between 5 and 5.5 percent of the total population. People familiar with the community estimate that between 40 and 60 percent of the adult Latino population is undocumented. Albemarle County schools are already 8 percent Latino, with some schools (Cale, Agnor-Hurt) close to 20 percent. Another number: Pew Hispanic Center estimates there are 4.5 million U.S.-born children with at least one unauthorized parent.
A month ago the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the legality of one major piece of Arizona SB 1070, the most severe immigration law ever proposed, paving the way for state and local law enforcement officers to determine people’s immigration status during stops and to detain them if they are unable to prove that they are legal residents. Prince William County enacted similar legislation in 2007 and proposed its adoption statewide late last year.
Ford: “In some ways, Prince William paved the way to Arizona.”
Corey Stewart, the county supervisor and lieutenant governor candidate who pushed for its adoption, claims that Prince William County law enforcement officers have identified 4,700 “illegal immigrants” since the measure went into effect. If the GOP backs the legislation’s adoption statewide, it would likely have the votes to push the measure through the General Assembly. The U.S. Supreme Court struck down farther reaching components of Arizona SB 1070, including a provision that would have made it illegal for unauthorized immigrants to seek work and for citizens to house them. Polling data shows that nearly 60 percent of Americans approve of the law, but 75 percent of Latinos oppose it.
Just before the court decision was handed down, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would no longer deport undocumented immigrants under the age of 30 who came to the U.S. before they turned 16, have lived here for at least five years, and possess clean criminal records. The policy will make it possible for between 800,000 and 1.5 million people to obtain driver’s licenses and work legally when it comes into effect, which may happen as early as next month.
In reaching out to the Dreamers—the name for the under-30 group—through his enforcement policy, Obama courted the Latino vote and vocalized a liberal agenda.
“They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper,” Obama said, as he introduced the policy from the Rose Garden.
The undocumented immigrants in Charlottesville are nearly invisible, but they are here. They work cleaning our houses, offices, and country clubs, as roofers and landscapers, in restaurant kitchens. They can’t speak for themselves, because, on the record, they don’t exist. But other members of the Latino community are ready to speak for them, and to explain how immigration reform can bring them out of the shadows.