Evening Edition last Tuesday night on WVTF focused on immigration in Virginia.
Bob Gibson, the Charlottesville Daily Progress political reporter, hosted a conversation with guests Henrico County Republican Delegate Bill Janis,who wants to crack down harder of illegal immigration, and me, a former Chief Deputy Attorney General of Virginia who has lobbied the Virginia General Assembly for the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations.
You can listen to the program, which includes some good comments and questions from listeners as well as a civil discussion among Janis, Gibson and me on a range of topics including local enforcement of immigration law, access to services and the need for comprehensive immigration reform, here.
From my perspective, the most difficult question asked Tuesday night was one from "Anita" from "southside" about her "standard of living" which presupposed that undocumented immigrants are responsible for the economic hardships that she and others in her community are experiencing. The question was difficult because it is impossible not to empathize with her and others in southside and southwest Virginia who are suffering because of current economic factors, too often generated by bad business and public policy decisions, including the long-standing failure of southside businesses to support quality schools, the ill-conceived NAFTA agreement that harmed workers on both sides of the border, and the continuing opposition of business groups to any increase in the minimum wage, and to the very concept of a living wage.
What is frustrating, however, about Anita's question is that it illustrates a growing use of immigrants as the convenient scapegoat on which to focus the economic frustration of southsiders and working people across Virginia by those who would like to divert attention from their own business and policy decisions.
This is similar to what is happening in Prince William where the absolute failure of local leaders to manage growth intelligently (and state leaders to give them additional tools with which to do so) has begun to affect the county adversely -- creating the current NOVA transportation nightmare, increasing demands on services for which there are inadequate public facilities, overcrowding existing county schools, and causing property values to decline in older neighborhoods as new construction draws residents to other areas and there is no policy to encourage redevelopment and infill in the older residential and business areas of the county. So, instead of facing up to their own failures, the local officials and state delegates and senators running for reelection in Prince William have taken the "easy route," and sought to deflect blame for their own ineffectiveness onto immigrants who,in recent years, have moved to the county in increasing numbers.
Across Virginia, it's gotten so that no matter what the issue, whether it is the abject failure to enforce drunk driving laws effectively and stringently or overcrowded schools with deferred maintenance issues, politicians on both sides of the aisle (with few notable exceptions like Gerry Connally) increasingly are resorting to chanting a single, divisive mantra ... it's not us, it's the immigrants.
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, this kind of strategy (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.