At the beginning of last year’s legislative session in Richmond, I worked with several other legislators, NGO representatives and progressive lobbyists to establish a “New Americans” legislative caucus. Our mission is to assess proposed legislation, as well as draft and submit new legislation to facilitate the rational and compassionate integration of foreign-born Virginia residents and their families into the economic and civic life of the Commonwealth. We actively supported Attorney General Mark Herring’s finding that participants in the President’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program should qualify for in-state tuition at Virginia colleges. We intend to oppose bills that would overturn this policy. The caucus also supported legislation I filed in the 2015 session to enable the Virginia DMV to issue driver’s permits to refugees who are here legally under the U.S. government’s refugee resettlement program. My bill did not clear committee last year, but I intend to refine the draft and patron the legislation during the 2016 session.
I have represented the culturally and ethnically diverse constituencies of Mason District – as School Board Member and, subsequently, as 38th District Delegate – for more than 15 years. Over the past 30-plus years living inside the beltway, my family life has been enriched by many friends, neighbors, colleagues and businesses with origins outside the United States. The foreign born residents in my neighborhood comprise an extraordinarily varied group. They include newly arrived refugees from Somalia and Iraq, earlier refugees from Afghanistan and Vietnam, economic migrants from Korea, India, Pakistan, Mexico and other Central and South American countries. I patronize a number of businesses founded by formerly undocumented residents, who became citizens under Ronald Reagan’s immigration reform initiative.
I am particularly disheartened by the noxious environment that that is emanating from the Republican presidential campaign regarding the immigration “problem.” Donald Trump has seized the agenda with a proposal that consists of an odd-ball mix of jingoism and economic populism: (1) Build a bigger wall and make Mexico pay for it!; 2) Expel 11 million undocumented workers by tripling the number of Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers; and, 3) Terminate give-away trade deals; cut H 1B visas; and reduce the number of refugees and legal immigrants we admit. According to his website, “The Schumer-Rubio immigration bill was nothing more than a giveaway to the corporate patrons who run both parties.” Needless to say Trump has heads spinning among the corporate Republicans, who hear echoes of Bernie Sanders in his rhetoric.
Trump rightly highlights how cheap labor of undocumented workers benefits to some businesses, big and small. The only practical solution to the problem – short of spending $100-plus billions to “send them home” – is the same solution Ronald Reagan arrived at: a path to documented status. Such a program would also offer the best option to identify and expel the small number of real criminals.
Unfortunately, the Syrian refugee crisis, which many conflate with legal immigration, has raised concerns and frustrations among average Americans. The United States works closely with the United Nations on refugee resettlement. In FY2014, we accepted 70,000 refugees qualified by the UN under international law, up from 58,000 in 2012. The 2014 numbers included 19,000 from Iraq, 15,000 from Burma, 9,000 from Somalia, and lesser numbers from 76 other countries. Only 132 were from Syria. Last year Virginia took a total of 1,310 refugees, most from Iraq and Somalia.
To date, the UN High Commissioner on Refugees has credentialed 16,000-plus Syrians for the U.S. to consider. The expectation is that we should accept 65,000 refugees this year. Politicians from both sides of the aisle have used security concerns to deflect calls for program participation.
The U. S. has been complicit in creating this crisis. We have a moral responsibility to respond, while actively minimizing risk. With effective vetting, I am certain that many talented Syrian refugees can be identified who can thrive following resettlement in the U.S.
Delegate Kory represents the 38th District in the Virginia House of Delegates. She may be emailed at [email protected]