THE GOSPEL DURING Spanish-language Mass seems oddly appropriate one recent Sunday morning at St. John's Catholic Church in Highland Springs, east of downtown Richmond. The passage, Luke 1:39-56, tells of the infant leaping in the womb of a pregnant relative of the Virgin Mary, while in the church pews children wiggle and babies cry.
After the service, Jorge Vargas, 46, ponders the plight faced by Hispanic immigrants. “I've been living in this country for 42 years and have been a U.S. citizen for 19,” says Vargas, who was born in Mexico and works for SunTrust Bank. “So, I am not frightened. But for the rest of them,” he says, nodding around the room, “it could be a different story.”
Indeed, many Spanish-speaking immigrants, properly documented or not, may not be aware of the storm coming their way. If conservative politicians, right-wing television and radio talking heads and grass-roots citizens groups such as the tea party movement have their way, Virginia could soon become a mirror image of Arizona, whose highly controversial, and some say racist, immigration law has attracted international attention.
“A lot of Hispanic people don't know what's coming,” says Oscar Contreras, an immigration activist and speaker on a Spanish-language Christian radio station in the Richmond area. Adds Michel Zajur, president of the Virginia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce: “We don't want Virginia to be Arizona.”
New initiatives such as the so-called Rule of Law Campaign put together by Corey A. Stewart, a hard-right Republican supervisor in Northern Virginia's Prince William County, calls for much tougher practices against undocumented aliens in the Old Dominion.
Police across the state would be required to check the immigration status of anyone they encounter “in any lawful contact” and to make warrantless arrests if they have reasonable suspicion that the individuals are illegal immigrants.
Hispanics flock to the weekend Bellwood Flea Market near Jefferson Davis Highway, south of downtown Richmond. Photo by Scott Elmquist.Cities and counties would be prohibited from passing laws that prevent police from checking immigration status. Soliciting for day jobs along public roads would be prohibited, and police could break up day-labor staging areas. And anyone sending money out of the country to a friend or relative would have to pay a special state tax.
In tandem with the campaign, conservative Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli recently issued an opinion that police can stop and inquire about the immigration status of anyone if they have a reasonable suspicion that person is in the country illegally.
In a bizarre twist that shows just how screwy the immigration debate has become, the American Civil Liberties Union issued a statement immediately after Cuccinelli's opinion, saying that it should be ignored. The ACLU points out that being in the United States illegally is a civil, not criminal, violation of federal law. Thus, Cuccinelli has no right to push its enforcement, the ACLU says. Cuccinelli also has come out in the past for anti-immigrant moves similar to ones now being advocated, such repealing the U.S. Constitution's 14th Amendment, which mandates automatic U.S. citizenship to anyone born on U.S. soil for the past 142 years.
What's curious is the timing of the re-emergence of the campaign against illegal immigrants. The issue had been boiling for several years. But in his gubernatorial campaign last year, Republican Gov. Robert F. McDonnell barely mentioned immigration as he tried to recast himself from strict social conservative to more politically acceptable moderate.
What set the issue afire once again is the situation in Arizona, where the international media watched very closely as the countdown clicked toward the tough new law against illegals July 30. The U.S. Justice Department under President Barack Obama had sued the state to block the law. Straying far afield, Cuccinelli filed a friend of the court brief supporting Arizona's legislation.
The day before, a federal judge in Phoenix declared some parts of the law temporarily void, such as the requirement that police ask about the immigration status of anyone they stop. The ruling stirred national controversy once again.
And in Virginia, two days after what remained of Arizona's law took effect, a tragedy poured even more fuel on the fiery debate.
Brought to the United States from Bolivia illegally at age 8, Carlos A. Martinelly Montano had two drunken-driving convictions before being accused of driving drunk and killing Sister Jeanette Mosier and injuring two other Richmond nuns in Bristow on Aug. 2. Photo courtesy the Prince William County Police.ABOUT 8 A.M. on Aug. 2, three Richmond-area nuns were riding in a car on their way to a religious retreat at St. Benedict's Monastery in Bristow in Prince William County. The nuns, Sisters Jeanette A. Mosier, 66, Connie Ruth Lupton, 75, and Charlotte Lange, 70, were heading north on Bristow Road near Wright Lane. A Richmond native, Lange had served as principal of St. Benedict School and St. Gertrude High School in Richmond's Museum District.
Driving the other direction on Bristow Road while allegedly drunk was Carlos A. Martinelly Montano of Bristow. The 23-year-old undocumented Bolivian national lost control of his car. He is said to have had such as serious drinking problem that his parents tried to hide car keys from him and he'd been convicted of driving under the influence twice before.
Martinelly Montano's vehicle hit a barrier, drove into the northbound lane, hit another barrier and then slammed head-on into the nuns' car. Sister Mosier, sitting in the back seat, was killed instantly and the two others were seriously injured.
Sisters of the Benedictine Order issued statements of forgiveness and pleaded that the accident not be used for political purposes. But immigration firebrands such as Prince William Supervisor Chairman Stewart quickly seized on Martinelly Montano's immigration status to supercharge their political campaigns.
When it was revealed that Catholic charities had given legal help to Martinelly Montano and his family to resolve immigration issues, The Richmond Times-Dispatch made it front-page news. The family had entered the United States illegally from Bolivia when Martinelly Montano was 8. Except for him, family members later were granted permits to work in the country by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to The Washington Post.
The area where the wreck happened is a patchwork of dairy farms and suburban sprawl dotted with subdivisions of large, expensive houses and tracts of three-story townhouses. Until the financial crisis, Prince William, about 25 miles south of Washington, had been struggling with sprawl issues such as keeping up with the services demanded by the affluent and predominately white new arrivals, many of them transients with federal jobs.
The need for new roads was so intense that the county started building them rather than waiting for the cash-strapped state. The building frenzy ran smack into the subprime mortgage crisis, and by 2007 the county was building only 1,000 new houses each year instead of the previous 4,500.
The building boom also brought in a wave of immigrants during the past decade. Most were Hispanics ready for the hard labor in home construction, landscaping or services. When the boom left, they stayed.
Corey A. Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Board of Supervisors, wants a restrictive law passed by his county in 2007, and similar to Arizona's more recent anti-illegal immigration law, adopted for all of Virginia. Photo by Scott Elmquist.The result was a culture clash: monied whites regularly coming across lower-income Latinos at the McDonald's and Target stores along Route 28. By 2007 Prince William's notorious anti-illegal immigrant law, backed by Stewart, took effect. It required police to question the citizenship status of anyone they came across for other possible legal violations.
Stewart, who could not be reached for comment, has said that the law resulted in the arrest of 3,000 illegal aliens in the county and has been a model for Arizona's law. The law prompted a steep decrease in attendance at English as a second language courses and drew national attention to Prince William.
Stewart has declared nationally on Fox News television that the law resulted in a 37 percent drop in violent crime for the county, but a number of skeptics have questioned his claim. Ali Ahmad, Stewart's political aide, says that the 37 percent drop in violent crime is for that period from 2006 to 2007, and then from 2007 to 2008. The anti-illegal immigration law took effect on July 1, 2007.
Asked for statistics showing that the drop in violent crime involved illegal immigrants directly, Ahmad says he does not have them. But, he says, “Chairman Stewart attributes the sharp decline in violent crime to the policy in part because surrounding jurisdictions did not see similarly sharp drops and the key difference was Prince William's criminal illegal alien policy.”
More recent police statistics present doubts. In 2009, for example, a survey by the Prince William County Police Department reported that violent crime actually had risen by more than 10 percent. That was about two years after the law had been in effect. Ahmad would not comment on the discrepancy.
Oscar Contreras, a reporter and announcer at local Spanish-speaking radio station WBTK-AM 1380, says many members of the Latino community don't realize what may come with Corey Stewart's proposed law. Photo by Scott Elmquist.Police statistics also show that in 2009, illegal immigrants didn't seem to commit many violent crimes — murders, rapes or robberies — in the county, but did have an unusually high level of arrests for prostitution and public drunkenness.
One thing the law did do was make life more difficult for Hispanics. Many of them shunned Prince William County altogether while others suffered business losses.
Luis Gomez had to shut down his restaurant, Mi Barrio, which features Salvadoran and Mexican food, for six months. The small restaurant, painted in dark pink, is on Prescott Avenue in Manassas, the county's largest town, and caters to Latinos.
“It was really big,” says Gomez, who is a legal resident alien from Salvador. “We had to shut down and then operated two days a week since so many people were afraid to come into the county.”
Hispanics got used to being rousted by the police. “If they saw three Spanish-looking people in a car, they'd look for a reason to stop them and then check their IDs,” Gomez says. Usually, he adds, they'd be satisfied with a driver's license showing a local address. About 18 months ago, he says, the police lightened up on such spot checks. Mi Barrio is back to its full operating schedule.
AN EXPERIENCE LIKE that of Mi Barrio's is exactly what Zajur of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce wants to avoid. “What's happening in Prince William is very troubling,” he says. His group represents more than 300 Hispanic-owned businesses across the state, including some that have grown into companies with millions of dollars in annual revenues. All stand to lose if a statewide anti-illegal immigrant law passes.
The immigration issue is very complicated and needs extensive, far-sighted reform on the federal level and not interference by individual states or localities, Zajur says. What's more, being an illegal immigrant is a violation of civil, not criminal, federal law and must be dealt with accordingly.
“If any illegal is committing violent acts, we want him out of this country,” Zajur says. “But you are not going to have 12 million Hispanics all of a sudden leave.”
What's missing from the debate are facts such as aliens, either illegal or legal, pay taxes and contribute to Social Security, he says. Asked about Stewart's idea to place a state tax on foreign money transfers, Zajur says it's a bad idea and unfair because the money being transferred almost always has been taxed already.
Tanya Gonzalez, supervisor of Richmond's Hispanic Liaison Office, helps provide Latinos with services ranging from job training to safety in the James River. Photo by Scott Elmquist.Meanwhile, the Hispanic liaison office for the city of Richmond continues its work with Latinos at several outreach centers. Tanya Gonzalez, who directs the program, says that her group helps Hispanics with job placement, English classes, health advice and how to pay taxes, and offers courses such as how to be safe while swimming in the James River. Chesterfield County has a similar program
The community, which numbers about 11,000 in the city, “is very diverse” and comes from all of Latin America, the Caribbean and Spain. “We don't ask if they are documented or undocumented,” she says. One upcoming event that will celebrate the community's diverse Latino community is the Imagine festival scheduled at Broad Rock Park on Oct. 16.
Asked if the city coordinates with the state on Hispanic issues, Gonzalez says it used to, but Gov. McDonnell hasn't appointed a state Hispanic liaison official yet. The position was created by former Gov. Mark Warner and continued by Gov. Tim Kaine.
Nationally, as strong-arm approaches such as Arizona's meet judicial roadblocks, states are considering other ways of dealing with illegal immigration. Utah, for instance, had considered an Arizona-style law, but is dropping the idea in favor of a state-run “guest worker” program. In it, Utah businesses would go to a state office with requests for workers from Mexico or other countries. The office would contact officials in Mexico who would recruit the workers and coordinate visa and other permits with U.S. authorities.
Yet passions run high, and Stewart's statewide bill might have legs. While the Martinelly Montano case may have encouraged the anti-illegal sentiment, it also offers an instructive lesson.
On the night of Aug. 2, the doorbell rang at the two-story, red brick monastery where the one dead and two injured nuns had been heading when the accident occurred, according to The Washington Post. At the door were a man and a woman, the parents of Martinelly Montano. Their hands were at their sides and their eyes were cast down. They said they wanted to talk about the accident and ask for forgiveness.