It has become a standard refrain in Republican Jerry W. Kilgore’s stump speech for governor, tucked in among the pledges for better pay for better teachers and the promises not to raise taxes:
Virginia officials “should not be spending more of your hard-earned tax dollars to encourage illegal immigration.”
Kilgore’s eagerness to talk about the issue is being watched closely not just by his campaign opponents but also by political analysts and immigration experts nationwide. Campaign experts say the issue can be a risky one for a politician, and immigration experts are interested in how a clearly federal responsibility is working its way into gubernatorial campaigns and dividing state legislatures and city councils.
Illegal immigration “is an issue of growing concern and even anxiety at the grass roots,” said Roberto Suro, director of the Pew Hispanic Center. “It’s one of those issues where politicians of both parties are trying to catch up with the public.”
In Virginia, a new Washington Post poll shows, 33 percent of registered voters think “the growing number of immigrants” has been bad for their communities, compared with 21 percent who say it has been good. In Northern Virginia, where most of the state’s immigrants reside, residents split almost equally on whether immigration has been good or bad for their communities.
The poll also shows that, statewide, voters agree with Kilgore’s view that officials should not use public money to build centers where day laborers can gather to look for work, an issue that has sharply divided the Fairfax County town of Herndon.
By a ratio of 56 to 42 percent, voters say taxpayers should not fund the centers. And when respondents were asked how they would feel if some of those who used the centers to look for work were in the country illegally, opposition grew even stronger.
“There’s definitely a huge gap between the elite and public perceptions on immigration,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which supports stricter immigration controls.
State Sen. H. Russell Potts Jr. (R-Winchester), who is running for governor as an independent, called Kilgore’s actions “the worst form of pandering.” Lt. Gov. Timothy M. Kaine, the Democratic candidate, said Kilgore is trying to find a wedge issue in what was an attempt by local officials to solve a difficult problem. “I think that’s kind of slimy,” he said Thursday.
Despite polls that show high voter unhappiness with illegal immigration, political experts say candidates must be careful, for fear of overplaying the issue or risking being called racist. Kirkorian, who said he would like to see the issue debated more, said Americans want “sober and intelligent” discussion on the issue and will be turned off by a “red face behind a lectern.”
The Post poll shows that Northern Virginia voters, who live in the most immigrant-populated area of the state, differ with the rest of the state on the impact of immigration and on the day-laborer centers. By a slight majority, Northern Virginia voters favor using public money to build the centers.