Opinions/Editorials (OpEd) by Claire Guthrie Gastańaga
Public Advocacy
It's Time to Stop Trading on Fear
Richmond Times Dispatch, August 6, 2010 (oped pages)

Last month Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli filed an amicus brief in federal court aligning Virginia with the Arizona legislation that gives police expanded powers to question people about their citizenship and authority to be present in our country. This week, not dissuaded by the federal court’s rejection of his arguments, he issued an opinion repeating his advocacy position. By doing so, he sent a message across the country that Virginians are willing to sacrifice our civil liberties and our shared sense of community on the altar of the “rule of law.”

Make no mistake, I agree with the Attorney General that respect for the “rule of law” is essential to the health of our democracy. I also agree that we must have secure borders in order for all of us to truly live free. But, I don’t see how authorizing the local police to ask me to prove I am a citizen will make Virginia safer. And, I am growing tired of those who trade on fear and impatient with the politicians who so easily seek to exploit fear for political gain.

It's gotten so that no matter what the issue, whether it is the abject failure of our courts to enforce drunk driving laws effectively (a painful example of which our Richmond community experienced this week), overcrowded schools with deferred maintenance issues, or poorly planned growth, politicians on both sides of the aisle increasingly are resorting to chanting a single, divisive mantra ... “it's not us, it's the immigrants.”

Working people across Virginia, and particularly those in "southside," are encouraged to blame undocumented immigrants for their economic hardships. It is impossible not to empathize with the people in southside and southwest Virginia who are suffering because whole industries are failing and jobs are scarce. But, to blame new Virginians for bad business and policy decisions made over decades is too convenient for words. Immigrants are not responsible for the long-standing, self-interested failure of southside manufacturing, mining and agricultural businesses to support quality schools, the ill-conceived NAFTA agreement that harmed workers on both sides of the border, or the exodus of young people unable to visualize a future in the region.

Similarly, people in high growth communities are encouraged to blame immigrants for the adverse consequences of bad planning. For example, in Prince William, a county with aging housing stock and increasing sprawl, there was no policy to encourage redevelopment and infill in the older residential and business areas of the county or to create transit oriented communities. This had predictable adverse effects on quality of life in the County adding to the NOVA transportation nightmare, increasing demands for services, overcrowding existing county schools and other public facilities, and causing property values to decline in older neighborhoods as new construction drew residents to other areas. So, in 2007, Prince William County elected officials took the "easy route" and sought to deflect blame for their own ineffectiveness onto immigrants who, until Prince William enacted an Arizona style ordinance, had been moving to the county in increasing numbers. Of course, the “easy route” didn’t prove to be so easy as Latinos and other people of color who were contributing to the County’s growth and increasing prosperity left and the County ended up with the highest foreclosure rate in the state and declining property values and tax revenues.

In an increasingly global and mobile economy, where physical headquarters are increasingly irrelevant and companies and workers alike can pick up and move quickly to another location, continuing to choose the strategy of scapegoating immigrants (which may be thought by some to yield short term political advantage) will wreak havoc on Virginia's future long term.
No one wants to locate their business or move their family to a community/state riven by ethnic strife and division no matter which side of the dividing line they are on.

It is past time for Virginia leaders (political, business, religious and community) to begin proactively to educate residents about the benefits of an ethnically diverse Commonwealth and to help build community among our increasingly diverse population, instead of playing cynically to people's worst fears and darkest beliefs.
The risk of not doing so is to give continued credibility to Virginia's dark past and to cloud its future with challenges to the validity of our commitment to a truly inclusive Commonwealth.

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