By Saffeya Ahmed
Capital News Service
RICHMOND — Immigrant rights advocates urged legislators Wednesday to provide driving privileges, wage theft protection and in-state tuition to people who reside in Virginia illegally.
The Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights — composed of more than 20 immigrant justice organizations — laid out its legislative agenda on behalf of the state’s estimated 270,000 residents without legal permission to live in the U.S.
Ben Hoyne of the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy said he hopes the General Assembly will amend the Virginia Minimum Wage Act, which currently exempts certain jobs from being paid minimum wage.
“Shoeshine boys, movie ticket takers, newspaper boys, other things like that,” Hoyne said. He said those jobs were “specifically written into Virginia code to be excluded and not be paid the minimum wage of $7.25.”
Hoyne also called for legislation requiring employers to provide pay stubs to employees and implement whistleblower protections for workers who complain about employers.
Some advocates, including Haziel Andrade of the Virginia Intercollegiate Immigrant Alliance, shared personal stories about why issues such as college tuition and the ability to drive affect Virginia’s immigrant communities.
“As I share part of my story,” Andrade said, “I’d like anyone listening to look at me as a human being, not by my immigration status.”
Andrade arrived in the U.S. from Colombia at 3 years old. Currently a temporary resident under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, she studies computer science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Andrade asked legislators to let Virginians lacking proper documentation pay in-state tuition rates.
“Now more than ever, I’m being targeted because of my immigration status. And I feel as though no one cares about my education,” Andrade said. “What makes my education any different from any other Virginian student?”
Of the 270,000 Virginians residing in the U.S. without permission, at least 12,000 were minors who qualified for DACA in 2017, according to U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services. But not everyone believes DACA recipients should receive in-state tuition.
Ira Mehlman, media director with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, called subsidizing tuition for those living in the U.S. illegally a “zero-sum game.”
“Money that is given to subsidize college educations for people who are in the country illegally is money that is not given to someone else,” Mehlman said. He said the Virginia Coalition for Immigrant Rights wants “to allocate scarce public resources to benefit a group of people who are in the country illegally, and it’s coming at the expense of other people who need those benefits.”
Besides in-state tuition, members of the coalition discussed the need for legal permission to drive a motor vehicle. Elena Camacho told her story in Spanish, translated by VACIR Executive Director Monica Sarmiento.
“The first example I’ll list is an undocumented friend I have who has a special needs son,” Camacho said. “She needs to drive her son to and from the doctor’s office … She has this daily need, but she isn’t able to fulfill it.”
But Mehlman said driving privileges are just that — a privilege.
“The idea that you are in the country illegally — you have no legal right to be here — [and] you should be awarded the privilege of driving … it simply doesn’t make much sense,” Mehlman said. “The state of Virginia should not be facilitating people violating federal immigration law.”
Camacho described driving as a need, not a want.
“The ability to have driving privileges is absolutely essential,” Sarmiento translated. “Some people see a basic necessity as being able to have food, to have health care. Driving privileges should be seen in that particular way because it is an access to all those avenues.”