Fight for your rights

“Virginia immigrants share many of the same policy concerns as all other Virginians,” Tim Freilich, legal director for Legal Aid’s Immigrant Advocacy Program, told a sizable crowd last week. Freilich’s audience was a group convened by Creciendo Juntos, a network of local agencies that serve the Latino population in Charlottesville and Albemarle.

Legal Aid’s Tim Freilich says a greater number of the area’s immigrant population addressed the General Assembly on prospective legislation this year.

There are 630,000 Virginia residents of Hispanic origins. Of that number, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, 210,000 are unauthorized immigrants—a decrease from 325,000 in 2000. Locally, the Latino population has doubled in the past 10 years. The 2010 Census counted 2,223 Latinos in the City of Charlottesville—5.1 percent of the city population, representing a 100 percent increase since 2000. In the county, the numbers are even more staggering: 5,417 Latinos, a 260 percent increase since 2000.

This year, about 40 immigration-related bills were introduced in the General Assembly that would have affected undocumented immigrants and their families. Those bills included efforts to bar undocumented students from being admitted to public colleges, and requirements for state and local arresting officers to check the citizenship of those they take into custody. Many bills passed the House Courts of Justice Subcommittee on Immigration, but were ultimately tabled by a Senate subcommittee.

This year, says Freilich, a greater number of local immigrants advocated for their rights and trekked to Richmond to testify against some bills, or simply to make their presence felt. “We have seen more groups becoming involved,” says Freilich. “I think the reason is that, locally, more and more families are feeling the impact of our broken federal immigration system.”
The Obama Administration’s increased enforcement of national immigration laws may have created a climate of fear and distrust among area Latinos. In Fiscal Year 2010, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) removed 392,000 illegal aliens nationwide—the largest total in U.S. history and a 70 percent increase from FY2008 during the Bush Administration, according to a Department of Homeland Security press release. About 195,000 of those were convicted criminals.

Federal immigration laws have had a “dramatic” impact on mixed-status families, where citizen children live with undocumented parents, says Freilich.

“Separating families in Virginia is something that, regardless of the immigration status of the individuals involved, has a very serious negative effect on all of our community,” he told his audience. “Deporting an unlawfully present head of household is bad for all of us.”

A fear of separation or deportation also threatened to disrupt local education opportunities for children of immigrants. House Bill 1775 would have required local school districts to provide the state Board of Education with the number of students enrolled in English as a Second Language classes whose parents could not provide a birth certificate. Gloria Rockhold, a community engagement manager with Albemarle schools, says that this bill would have shut down communication between parents and the schools because of fear of reporting their citizenship status.

“It would have caused the educational system to be policing the families,” she says.

“I feel as a community we are investing so much money educating these kids…and we are telling them ‘You can’t find a job, you can’t contribute back, and you can’t go to higher education,’” she says of bills targeting education. “Why would someone want to invest in the Charlottesville-Albemarle area if there is no human capital that’s actually educated enough to be able to be employed?” 

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