‘Virginia is for Lovers’ just became just a little more real for immigrants

March 20, 2020 12:01 am

Supporters of a range of pro-immigrant bills rallied at the Virginia Capitol in 2020. (CASA in Action)

By Luis Angel Aguilar

As an immigrant growing up undocumented in Virginia, my love for my community was challenged by a slew of anti-immigrant policies on a local and state level that treated me and the powerful undocumented immigrants in my life as subhuman. Although immigrants made enormous contributions to the commonwealth both economically and especially culturally, our elected officials seemed determined to drive us away.

Although it is easy to talk about the turnaround to this saga in the last 60 days of the Virginia General Assembly session, this is really a story that begins in 2017. The first Virginia election after Donald Trump took the White House, emboldened Democrats — including immigrants — ran for election in traditionally Republican seats. We knew the people truly inspiring voters were candidates like Kathy Tran and the Elizabeth Guzman – compelling immigrants who would finally put a face on the emerging political power of my neighbors and friends.

The upside of annual elections in the commonwealth is that every year is an opportunity to win better representation.  Each election cycle has an immigrant story to tell. The 2018 election saw the defeat of Dave Brat, a congressman largely viewed as having been elected in repudiation of Eric Cantor’s comparative openness to immigration reform. The 2019 election truly transformed political power in the commonwealth, not only flipping the state House and Senate but shifting power up and down the ballot. Prince William County – home to Corey Stewart, the worst anti-immigrant official in Virginia – elected a board of supervisors that overnight became majority Democratic and majority African-American.

Immigrants were among the electorate that helped power these shifts. Both by launching aggressive electoral programs like ours and also by voting. By 2018, more than half a million immigrants in Virginia were eligible to vote. And those numbers don’t reflect new voters like my sister Felisa Aguilar, who voted for the first time in 2019 and entered a voting booth focused on achieving justice for our undocumented mother. One in 11 Virginians is a U.S.-born child of an immigrant and like Felisa, they are racing to the voting booth.

Fast forward to the General Assembly session that just ended. Legislators made payment on a moral debt owed for years of immigrant bashing in the commonwealth. Together with partners, our organization successfully fought for driving access for the undocumented community, in-state tuition for undocumented youth, and increased financial support for English learner students in our K-12 system. Other campaigns led by organizations like Legal Aid Justice Center, NAKASEC, and the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy reduced ICE-police collaboration and established an Office of New Americans.

Not bad for 60 days.

Our work isn’t over.

As long as Prince William County and other localities still have 287g agreements under which local law enforcement acts as ICE agents, there is a huge body of work left to be done. And, after all, the election staring us down in 2020, an election that literally, as a DACA-holder, determines my capacity to remain in the United States, may be the most important of my lifetime.

But it is important to take a brief pause and celebrate with our members and neighbors that since January the Virginia is for Lovers tagline became just a little more real for immigrants. We are left with the ultimate lesson taught by Ella Baker that “Give light and people will find the way” and this process has been full of light and hope for our community.

Luis Angel Aguilar is the Virginia director of CASA in Action, the Mid-Atlantic region’s largest electoral organization fighting for immigrant rights. 

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