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Panel wants people’s opinions about immigration

By Rob Johnson

When the Virginia Commission on Immigration meets Tuesday in Roanoke City Council chambers, there's one opinion the panel's chairman doesn't want to hear voiced. His own.

"I don't want to inject my opinion into this. We're trying to get the thoughts of the public," said Sen. John Watkins, R-Powhatan.

The commission is trying to determine if immigrants, both legal and illegal, are burdening such public services as education and law enforcement. Immigrants' impact on the economy is also under scrutiny.

Comments from the public are invited -- limited to three minutes per speaker. Those wishing to speak can sign up at the city council chambers 30 minutes before the hearing is scheduled to start at 5:30 p.m. The hearing is scheduled to last until 8:30 p.m. Comments may also by sent in advance by e-mail to immigration.commission@governor.virginia.gov.

The commission is an advisory board made up of 10 legislators and 10 members appointed by Gov. Tim Kaine. The public hearing on Tuesday is the only one scheduled for Western Virginia. Others will be held in Norfolk, Harrisonburg and Richmond.

Immigration's effects on public services has been a hot topic in Northern Virginia, where immigrants are a larger presence than in the Roanoke and New River valleys. In May, John Brownlee, the former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Virginia, said he plans to run as a Republican for attorney general in 2009, and make illegal immigration a part of his platform.

And in 2007, Bedford County officials expressed concern about the strain that illegal immigrants could put on county services.

But even if the commission does tap into public outcry over the effects of immigration, its powers to react are limited, Watkins said. "There's very little we can do with state legislation. If change is needed, it will usually come from the federal government. We can make recommendations to our friends at the federal level."

Further, Watkins said, the public should have a say in whether certain strategies are worth their expense. For example, he said, "We can enforce the law and arrest anyone without appropriate identification. But I think we have to ask ourselves, What is the cost of that? Are we willing to utilize tax dollars or increase taxes to enforce immigration laws?"

Besides, Watkins reasoned, once an illegal immigrant is arrested, the state's expenses on that case may only be starting.

"We can hold them, but we don't have the authority to deport them."

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