By Seth McLaughlin
Illegal immigration was a key issue in the recent Virginia elections, but as the 2008 General Assembly closes just a couple of more than 100 proposed bills on the issue were passed.
"We knew it was going to be an uphill battle, but, hey, we did better than last year," said Greg Letiecq, president of the anti-illegal immigrant group Help Save Manassas and a co-founder of Save the Old Dominion. "Last year we only got one bill through. ...There were no major victories, but there also were no losses."
State lawmakers passed a bill requiring the State Corporation Commission to shut down companies convicted of violating federal immigration laws.
They also passed one requiring local governments and state agencies to include a provision in contracts that requires contractors to certify they will not hire illegal immigrants. And they approved denying bail for criminal illegal immigrants convicted of certain crimes.
However, the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-controlled Senate continue to fight over a Democratic initiative to appropriate $150,000 annually to provide immigration-outreach training to police officers.
They could not agree on whether to require Gov. Tim Kaine, a Democrat, to allow state and local police to assist federal authorities with immigration enforcement and on whether to bar illegal immigrants from attending public colleges.
"Am I disappointed we did not get more stuff out? Yes," said Delegate Jeffrey M. Frederick, Prince William Republican.
Lawmakers adopted two of the 16 recommendations given to them last year by the state Crime Commission — composed of nine lawmakers, three citizens picked by the governor and a designee of the attorney general. One was the bail bill.
The commission was established by the General Assembly to study, report and make recommendations on all areas of public safety and protection.
James Towey, director of the commission, said an illegal-immigration task force dismissed many of the proposed bills on legal grounds before they reached the Assembly.
"In other words, what would not be pre-empted by federal law, and what also would be effective," he said.
The second bill recommended by the commission and passed by the Assembly requires authorities to check the immigration status of persons taken into custody on a criminal charge.
"I don't know what else we could do that we haven't done if the feds aren't willing to pick up people who have committed crimes who are in our prison and jails," said Sen. Kenneth W. Stolle, Virginia Beach Republican and commission member.
Mr. Stolle pointed out that law-enforcement officials last year contacted ICE's Vermont-based Law Enforcement Support Center 12,000 times about a person's immigration status, and fewer than 700 people were deported.
"We can say whatever we want, but until there are additional beds [in state jails] we are not going to increase the number of illegal immigrants deported in Virginia," he said.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement spokesman Pat Reilly disagreed, saying the agency does not necessarily hold illegal immigrants awaiting deportation in the state where they were caught.
Virginia attracted national attention last summer in the debate over illegal immigration when the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors passed one of the most aggressive crackdowns in the country.
Six officers and one citizen took ICE training and last week began assisting other officers in checking the immigration status of every criminal suspect encountered, even in minor offenses.
Soon after Prince William County started its crackdown, lawmakers introduced similar bills — including one to designate English as Virginia's official language; to establish a new 100-officer State Police legal presence division; and a bill calling on Mr. Kaine to enter the State Police into the so-called 287(g) agreement with ICE, the same one used by Prince William.
Republicans have blamed liberals in control of the Senate Courts of Justice Committee for killing the most aggressive proposals, while Democrats say the state has little leeway when it comes to immigration law.
Yesterday, Prince William County Board Chairman Corey A. Stewart, a Republican running for lieutenant governor in 2009, said lawmakers "basically got nothing done" regarding illegal immigration.
"The thing that absolutely disappoints me is that they could not agree to implement to the 287 (g) program statewide," he said. "It is a complete disappointment."