After years of simmering in the background, illegal immigration has quickly emerged as one of the key issues in Virginia’s Nov. 6 election, particularly in Northern Virginia, where voters say they are seeking candidates who will address it, according to a new Washington Post poll.
Three-quarters of likely voters in Virginia said immigration is important to their votes in the election for state and local offices, while just a year ago, immigration ranked seventh of 10 listed issues in a Post poll before the U.S. Senate race. Since then, the percentage of Virginia voters calling immigration “extremely” or “very” important to their vote has jumped 15 points.
There is a widespread sense that illegal immigration is a local problem, particularly after Congress’s failure to approve an immigration overhaul this summer. That has vaulted the issue into prominence.
It has also gained attention because of what people in both parties say is a predominantly Republican tactic to turn attention away from President Bush’s sagging approval ratings, an unpopular war and the state’s costly new abusive-driver fees.
Republicans across the state—and a few Democrats in conservative districts—have seized the issue, unveiling countless proposals to curb illegal immigration and talking it up on the campaign trail.
In the past two statewide elections, the unsuccessful Republican candidates for U.S. Senate and governor tried to make immigration an issue, but it did not resonate as deeply with voters as such problems as traffic congestion. Transportation and the state’s economy are still the biggest issues facing Virginia today, according to the Post poll, but immigration has made a surge in voter interest this fall. Among likely voters, 61 percent called illegal immigration a problem where they live.
A majority of likely voters who said immigration is extremely important would like to see Republicans maintain control of the General Assembly, and those who call the issue the state’s top problem generally prefer the GOP approach. But overall, Virginians give Democrats a narrow edge on handling immigration, and more voters would like to see the Democrats take over the state legislature.
A majority of Virginians, 53 percent, said they want state and local governments to do “a lot” to deal with illegal immigration; an additional third said they want “some” action.
Although state and local governments can do little to resolve immigration concerns, in part because federal and state laws provide many protections for illegal immigrants, six in 10 likely Virginia voters said they would be more inclined to support an office seeker who advocated aggressive state and local action against illegal immigrants.
In recent months, Prince William and Loudoun counties have voted to curtail government services to illegal immigrants, and Herndon voted to close a controversial day-laborer center frequented by many illegal immigrants. Last week, the Prince William board also unanimously passed a proposal that will allow police to check the immigration status of anyone who breaks the law. Fairfax officials are trying to determine which county services can be denied to illegal immigrants, although they haven’t decided to do that.
Republicans dispute the notion that they are exploiting the immigration issue to gain political advantage, saying they are responding to complaints from voters. “If you’re hyping a nonissue, you wouldn’t get these results,” Stewart said.
Nearly seven in 10 Virginians polled said the federal government has not done enough to deal with the issue. But many also see illegal immigration as a state and local issue—and not one that the federal government alone should address.
About one in eight Virginians call immigration the most or second-most important problem in the state. Fifty-one percent of those surveyed said illegal immigration is a problem where they live, including 20 percent who said it is a “very serious problem.”
Nearly a third of likely voters who live north of the Rappahannock River said immigration was one of the top two issues in the state, and 77 percent said illegal immigration was a problem in their communities; 37 percent called it a very serious problem.
Those numbers surged higher in Prince William, where half of all residents called immigration the most or second-most important issue facing the state and a majority classified illegal immigration as a very serious local problem.
The poll was conducted by telephone Oct. 4 through 8 among a random sample of 1,144 Virginia adults, including additional interviews with randomly selected residents of Loudoun and Prince William counties. The results from the full poll have a margin of sampling error of plus or minus three percentage points; it is larger among subgroups.