Immigrant Rights Coalition Calls For Sweeping Reforms

By Megan Schiffres

January 14, 2021

Coalition members say they want to build off successes from last year.

RICHMOND – Amy Lee is a single mother in Virginia still waiting to receive her green card. Working everyday until midnight, she was able to send her daughter to college. However, she feels powerless to help her other two children. 

“We had to pay her entire tuition out of pocket. My second child does not have DACA and he can not even try to apply to college. As a single mother with three children, I’ve had to work even though I am always tired and ill,” Lee said. “If we could have applied for state financial assistance programs, I wouldn’t have had to work so hard. But with no assistance, I could not take care of myself in the most fundamental ways.” 

Lee spoke about her challenges Thursday, as part of a press conference for the Immigrant Rights Coalition. The group, a multi-racial and multi-ethnic collaboration, fights for the rights of immigrants and refugees. During Thursday’s conference, members said they want to build off last year’s successes.

The group spoke in support of a wide range of sweeping reforms to education, evictions, and employment protections, going before the General Assembly.


Immigrant Education in Virginia 

In 2020 the legislature passed a bill expanding in-state tuition to students in Virginia regardless of their citizenship status. Members of the coalition said while in-state tuition is an important step forward, college is still too expensive for most immigrant families to afford. 

According to advocates, that’s because undocumented immigrants still don’t qualify for financial aid in Virginia. 

“This is a hurdle that our students can not meet. Especially when they’ve lost their jobs, their parents have lost their jobs, due to COVID. And we need to take the steps to complete the work we started last year. We need to open up financial aid for these students,” said Executive Director of the DREAM Project Lizzette Arias. 

The DREAM Project is a non-profit that empowers students whose immigration status creates a barrier to accessing education.

RELATED: Immigrant Rights Activists Hope ‘a Cloud Has Lifted’

Access to COVID-19 Treatment

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to worsen, immigrant and refugee advocates are worried low-income and minority populations, who are already more likely to be exposed to the virus, will be too scared to seek care when they become sick. 

“Some low-income Virginians who are excluded from most Medicaid coverage due to their immigration status fear seeking treatment for COVID could result in unaffordable medical bills,” said Laura Goren, research director for the Commonwealth Institute for Fiscal Analysis. “The emergency Medicaid program reimburses health care providers for some services provided to people who would qualify for regular Medicaid but are ineligible due to their immigration status.” 

The Commonwealth Institute of Fiscal Analysis provides financial information and analysis to policymakers and advocates in Virginia. Their research focuses on how fiscal and economic issues impact low and moderate-income people. 

The institute endorsed House Bill 2124, proposed by Del. Alfonso Lopez (D – Arlington), which would deem testing, treatment of, and vaccination against COVID-19 to be emergency services. 

Employment Protections for Immigrant People

Members of the coalition also announced their endorsement of legislation to eliminate the exemption of farm laborers or farm employees from the Minimum Wage Act. Del. Jeion Ward (D – Hampton) is proposing House Bill 1786 to strike the exemption. 

According to advocates, the exemption disproportionately impacts the immigrant community and its history has ties to Virginia’s racist past. Jason Yarashes, attorney for the Legal Aid Justice Center, called the exemption a sad, racist legacy of the Jim Crow Era. 

“The former exemption from Virginia wage protections has deep historic and racist roots. Farm workers were first excluded from federal minimum wage protections back in 1938. Historical records show that the exclusion was racially motivated,” Yarashes said. “The farm worker and migrant worker exemption from this minimum wage law is inequitable, unfair, and racist. It should be removed for the protection of farmworkers and their families.” 

The minimum wage in Virginia will increase from its current $7.25 per hour to $15 per hour by 2026 due to the passage of SB 7 last year. 22% of the immigrant population of Virginia, according to the American Immigration Council, work in the farming, fishing, and forestry industries.

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DMV and Immigration Enforcement

According to the National Immigration Law Center, the U.S. Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV) databases are the primary source federal law enforcement use to locate individuals. According to the law center, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and the DMV in some cases collaborate to arrest people they suspect of being undocumented. 

“Virginia agencies like the DMV should not be tolerating unlawful sharing and dissemination of consumer data. Lack of adequate privacy provisions put our immigrant communities at a great risk of deportation. And we know this a legitimate fear,” Montano said. 

Over a dozen states already extend driving privileges to residents regardless of their citizenship status. Many of them have made headlines for sharing information with ICE. Washington state is one of the most glaring examples of this practice. 

“ICE is not welcome here. State agencies have no business playing a role in wrongful deportations. We will not allow them or anyone else to participate in their efforts to terrorize our communities, separate our families, and expel law-abiding residents,” said Montano. 

Sponsored by Del. Kathy Tran (D – Springfield), House Bill 2163 would limit the release of DMV information to government entities and law-enforcement agencies for the purpose of civil immigration enforcement. 

Meg Schiffres is Dogwood’s associate editor. You can reach her at [email protected].

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