Virginia is becoming more welcoming

March 10, 2021 12:16 am

(Ned Oliver/ Virginia Mercury)

By Yely Montano

As a daughter of immigrants, Virginia has always been a home for my family. It wasn’t until I got older when I started hearing how other immigrant families outside of the state perceived Virginia. Virginia is unsafe for immigrants. Virginia is where the police will hand you over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Virginia is where they discriminate against you. Virginia is not welcoming. 

However, new leadership in the General Assembly has begun to change that, and groundbreaking laws passed in the last year have made this Virginian proud. Virginia made headlines by extending driving privileges to the immigrant community in 2020 — long overdue and years behind its neighbors in Maryland and the District of Columbia. Virginia also granted in-state tuition eligibility to all students, regardless of immigration status. Both were major victories for the immigrant community, and this year we celebrate more. 

The 2021 Virginia legislative session passed HB 2138, which authorizes the Department of Motor Vehicles to issue a non-driver photo identification option to immigrant adults and children who cannot or have no interest in operating a motor vehicle. Many of us don’t think about this daily but having a form of identification grants us access to schools, health care clinics and other institutions. It’s what we need to set up a bank account or cash a check, allowing us to better engage in our economy. It’s what we rely on in cases of emergencies or interactions with law enforcement. Once this bill becomes law, all Virginians will have greater access to services, better security, and dignity. 

The General Assembly also passed HB 2163, limiting the release and dissemination of data from the DMV for civil immigration purposes. For years, ICE has taken advantage of DMV data in other states that have extended driving privileges to immigrants. In passing this legislation, Virginia is taking the necessary steps to protect all consumers. It’s encouraging the immigrant community to apply for credentials at the DMV safely while bolstering greater trust between the two, which is vital, especially during this time. 

Virginia demonstrated its commitment to supporting our future leaders and professionals by passing legislation that would allow undocumented students to apply for state financial aid and assistance programs in passing HB 2123 and SB 1387. Virginia joins the 14 states that have extended this option, giving our undocumented students an equal opportunity to accessing higher education, allowing them a better chance of achieving their career goals and contributing to our economy and communities.

A virtual, 45-day legislative session brought exceptional progress for the immigrant community and our state as a whole, especially in criminal justice reform. During the 2020 special session, the state passed numerous police reform measures. Historic changes like abolishing the death penalty, legalizing future adult marijuana use and establishing an automatic expungement process for certain records passed this year. We are steadily evolving our policies to reflect our values and represent all Virginians. But there is still a lot of work ahead of us. 

Immigrants continue to get left behind on accessing preventive health care coverage and COVID-19 services, and now, vaccinations. Language and interpretation service options and quality are poor in health care spaces and governmental outreach and communication efforts. Immigrants are ineligible for public and social services and their trust with government and law enforcement is low, which, as the pandemic has demonstrated, can result in adverse outcomes. 

As someone who was born and raised in Virginia, I am proud of my state. I am proud to see what it’s becoming, but I know we can only continue on this path of progress with the right leadership — and challenging that leadership when necessary. By passing inclusive policies, the characterization of Virginia as unwelcoming to immigrants is shifting. I believe we are headed in the right direction, and we are only witnessing the beginning. Virginia is home. Let’s keep up the good work.

Yely Montano is an advocacy specialist for CASA, which advocates for immigrants in Virginia, Maryland and Pennsylvania. She lives in Alexandria.

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