Articles by Claire Guthrie Gastañaga
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Immigrants Make Significant Contributions and Face Many Challenges in Virginia
Richmond WOMAN, Vol. 2, Issue 11, November 2004, pp.16, 19

In 2003, the Virginia General Assembly passed a resolution (HJR 604) directing the Virginia legislature’s award winning, nonpartisan Joint Legislative Audit and Review Commission (JLARC) to study “acclimation of the Commonwealth’s ethnically diverse population.”   The study presented by the JLARC staff report in November 2003 (available online at www.jlarc.state.va.us) contained findings that exploded some myths about immigrants living and working in Virginia and offered facts about the important and essential contributions immigrants make to Virginia’s economy.

According to the JLARC study:
  • foreign born persons comprise 12% of the civilian workforce; 6.5% of active duty armed forces stationed in Virginia; and 44% of the labor market growth in the last decade;
  • 90% of migrant farmworkers are foreign born; 80% of Virginia farmers say that they would have to sell their farms and leave farming if the migrant/seasonal workforce was not available;
  • the poultry industry is heavily dependent on foreign born workers who make up half of the industry’s labor force;
  • 19% of workers in hotels/tourism are foreign born; without foreign workers many hotels/restaurants could not operate with a “full house;” and
  • Asians in Virginia have a buying power exceeding $6.6 billion; Latino buying power is over $5.7 billion.
The study confirmed that, in general, foreign-born persons do not use public services at a disproportionate rate; in fact, their use of public services is lower than expected given poverty rates and income levels.

Compared to native-born Virginians, the study found that immigrants need special help in only three areas: learning English; interpreter and translation services; and access to affordable health care.  Lack of health insurance means that immigrants are more likely to use public health services or seek charity care at local hospitals and free clinics.

The study highlighted an important compliance and equal opportunity issue for Virginia.  State and local programs operated using federal funds may be out of compliance with Title VI of the Civil Rights Act that prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity or national origin and requires language access for non-English speakers.

The JLARC study included a number of recommendations including: implementing a statewide plan for complying with Title VI; better coordination of funding and programming to address limited English proficiency in schools and for adult learners; increased outreach by law enforcement to prevent victimization of immigrant populations; and the development of state programs to assist in the naturalization process.

Delegate Kirk Cox (R Colonial Heights), author of the resolution calling for the JLARC study, introduced legislation during the 2004 General Assembly Session to implement some of the study recommendations:
  • House Bill 301, which would have funded programs to assist residents with the naturalization process, was killed in the Appropriations Committee.
  • HB 302, passed by the legislature and approved by the Governor, requires the state purchasing department to “establish a statewide contract for telephonic language interpretation services and other interpretation and translation services to Virginia's limited English-speaking residents, if it determines that such a contract is cost-effective.”
  • HJ 71, which would have helped bring Virginia programs into compliance with Title VI, originally called for development of a comprehensive plan to ensure the efficient and cost-effective provision of information and services to Virginia's limited English speaking residents.  The weakened version that ultimately passed the Senate and was accepted by the House only calls for a “plan for increasing awareness of the requirements to provide meaningful access to information and services in the Health and Human Resources Secretariat” eliminating any focus on language education for children or adults.
The action and inaction of the 2004 General Assembly on many JLARC recommendations leaves important issues unaddressed.  As of today, Virginia and its localities remain vulnerable to discrimination complaints under Title VI regarding access to services by language minorities. No action has been taken to address the serious health care issues identified by JLARC. Little has been done to assist immigrants in learning English.  These are issues that should be at the forefront as the Governor’s Virginia-Latino Advisory Commission and other immigrant groups continue to discuss ways Virginia can better accommodate our growing immigrant population.

In addition, to leaving unresolved many concerns identified in the study, the General Assembly passed a new law that went into effect on July 1 that threatens to have a negative effect on the relationship of trust between immigrant communities and law enforcement agencies.  Good law enforcement/community relationships are necessary to ensure the safety and security of all Virginians.  The new law, resulting from passage of HB570 (Albo, R-Springfield) and SB493 (Mims, R-Loudoun) during the 2004 General Assembly Session, is a narrow law that gives only very limited immigration enforcement powers to local and state police and should not, in fact, result in any real change in the way Virginia law enforcement agencies currently operate.

For the overwhelming majority of Virginia’s immigrants, this law should have no real effect.  Nonetheless, immigrant advocates are concerned that public or police misperception regarding the scope of the new law or inconsistent implementation by law enforcement agencies will result in biased policing and prevent immigrant communities and law enforcement from developing and preserving relationships of trust.

That is why twenty or more organizations and individuals representing the full diversity of immigrant communities in Virginia have come together in an unprecedented statewide alliance to raise awareness about this important public safety issue and to monitor the new law’s implementation.  The members of the new alliance, called The Virginia Alliance for Sensible Community Policing Efforts (VA-SCOPE), believe the best way to combat gang activity, drug trafficking, and terrorism (the stated targets of this new legislation) is through building trust and strong relationships between local law enforcement and the immigrant communities of Virginia.

Virginia law enforcement has invested millions of dollars in sensible community policing efforts.  VA-SCOPE wants to work with law enforcement to ensure that these dollars are not wasted.  One member of the Alliance, the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce has already brought representatives of Richmond area law enforcement agencies and organizations serving the Hispanic community together to discuss how best to reinforce collaboration and communication with law enforcement in light of concerns about the new legislation.

One thing is clear. If law enforcement agencies do not proceed with care, misunderstanding and fear regarding the new law could have a devastating impact on community policing in immigrant communities.  This is an outcome that no one concerned about safe neighborhoods, streets and schools should want.  As Jorge Figueredo, Co-Chair of the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations (VACOLAO), has said, “With more power comes more responsibility.  Now that this law has passed, the police need to be even more careful how they use their power or they will lose the trust of the community.”

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