Still, it may be a tough fight. Republicans would have had an easier time passing legislation targeting undocumented immigrants if they had taken more complete control of the Senate this week, said Kyle Kondik, a political analyst at the University of Virginia Center for Politics.
“It’s possible that such legislation could pass in Virginia, but it’s going to be very hard to get every single Republican member to back some of these more controversial bills,” Kondik said.
Republicans appear to have gained two seats in the state Senate on Tuesday’s election. If the results stay put after a recount in District 17 — where Republican Bryce Reeves was leading by 224 votes on Wednesday— the GOP will hold 20 seats as will the Democrats and will retake control of the chamber with the tie-breaking vote of Lt. Gov. Bill Bolling (R).
In the House of Delegates, Republicans added at least six seats on Tuesday, a significant gain that will bump their number to at least 65 of the chamber’s 100 seats.
It is hard to predict what Bolling, who has his eyes fixed on the governor’s office in 2013, would do if presented with controversial immigration bills.
“He needs to win a Republican primary first, potentially against conservative Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli,” Kondik said. Cuccinelli has been a strong advocate for granting state police authority to check immigration status.
“But, on the other hand, supporting controversial, conservative legislation — as any immigration bill could be — could hurt him in a general election,” Kondick said.
Anti-illegal immigration bills have surfaced in the last decade in Virginia, highlighting a growing sentiment in the state to dissuade illegal immigrants from coming to Virginia.
After 9/11, the Old Dominion was among the first states enacting tougher rules for illegal immigrants to obtain a driver’s license. Some localities — Prince William and Manassas, among them — adopted harsh policies to tackle undocumented immigrants within the last five years.
Gov. Bob McDonnell, elected in 2009, has actively sought programs to dissuade undocumented immigrants from the state.
A year ago, the Republican governor requested that federal government give state troopers authority to act as immigration officers. McDonnell said this month in a radio address that he is disappointed he has not heard a response to his petition from the Department of Homeland Security.
Virginia’s position on illegal immigration could have already led to an exodus of undocumented immigrants. A study released by the Pew Hispanic Center last year indicated Virginia saw its number of undocumented immigrants shrink from 2008 to 2009, declining by 65,000 to 240,000 people.
The Legislature has considered strict anti-illegal immigration measures in the past few years, generally backed by conservative Republicans. But the proposals have failed to advance in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.
This year for example, the House voted in favor of a proposal to allow police to determine a person’s legal status in the case of an arrest and another to bar undocumented immigrants from attending public universities and colleges. The two bills died in a Senate subcommittee.
“Anytime there was an effort to try to address issues in Virginia with regards to illegal immigration, a (Democrat-led) Senate committee would kill the bills, and they wouldn’t even have a debate in the Senate floor,” said Greg Letiecq, a Manassas resident who favors stricter immigration laws.
Letieqc, a Republican who heads the anti-illegal immigration group Save the Old Dominion, said he hopes this week’s Republican gains, will result in further debate of illegal immigration in the state.
“We can start to have a discussion instead of having everything shut down at a committee level,” he said.
Letiecq said he hopes the state would consider measures such as the ones enacted in Prince William County and Manassas a few years ago, where local police checked the immigration status of those arrested and then referred them to federal authorities.
He also wants the state to ban undocumented immigrants from receiving any state benefits not mandated by the federal government, and to implement E-verify, a federal program that allows businesses to determine the eligibility of their employees to work in the United States.
“We have had a huge problem with illegal aliens,” said Letiecq. “We need to start the discussion on whether we want to protect American workers or illegal immigrants.”
Those positions concern Edgar Aranda-Yanoc, who leads the Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, a nonprofit nonpartisan group that has led efforts in Richmond to defeat anti-illegal immigration bills.
New leadership in key committees where anti-illegal immigration legislation has been stopped in the past could bring new challenges, he said.
The worst-case scenario, he said, would be passage of legislation similar to one recently enacted in Alabama that led to thousands of immigrants to flee the state. He recalled a similar bill, which would have given local police the authority to act as immigration agents, which passed the Virginia House last year but was killed in the state Senate.
“Our work is tireless. We will work to stop initiatives that will lead to Virginia becoming another Alabama,” he said. “Whoever is in control, we are going to tell them that the Alabama law only produced negative consequences.
“We are hopeful that whoever is in power will listen.”