As the Virginia gubernatorial race nears completion, immigration has been surprisingly absent from the election cycle’s conversation. Virginia has the ninth-largest immigrant population in America, with more than 900,000 foreign-born people—11.1 percent of the state’s population—and around 200,000 undocumented immigrants. Virginia is no stranger to contentious immigration debates: Prince William County stood at the center of a debate around local immigration laws when it passed a harsh ordinance in 2007 mandating that police check the status of people they believed to be undocumented. Given the demographics and immigration history of the state, both gubernatorial candidates have attempted to move toward more favorable immigration positions, though differences between Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe and Attorney General Ken Cucinnelli (R) still persist.
Let’s look at the top five ways in which immigration has influenced the Virginia governor’s race:
- Public opinion in Virginia strongly supports immigration reform. According to June results from Harper Polling, 63 percent of Virginians support a pathway to citizenship, while 60 percent said they would be more likely to vote for an elected official who supports immigration reform. For Latino voters, who make up 8.2 percent of the Virginia electorate, polling by Latino Decisions has found that the immigration issue is deeply personal: 67 percent say that they have friends or relatives who are undocumented, and a full 86 percent support immigration reform.
- Terry McAuliffe supports a path to citizenship for unauthorized immigrants. As part of his “Latinos con Terry” campaign, McAuliffe talks about the need to create “a responsible pathway to earned citizenship for the 11 million undocumented immigrants” in the country. He is also a strong supporter of the Virginia DREAM Act, stating in the September 25 gubernatorial debate that if he were elected governor, it would be one of his “finest hours” to sign the state version of the DREAM Act, which would allow unauthorized youth to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universties.
- By contrast, Ken Cuccinelli supported many harsh and punitive immigration laws. In 2008, Cuccinelli sponsored SJ 131, the Birthright Citizenship Bill, which would have barred the U.S.-born children of unauthorized parents from gaining citizenship. The bill sought to overturn the 14th Amendment’s clear statement of birthright citizenship, which states that all people born in this country are U.S. citizens. He supported a bill in January 2008 that would have denied unemployment benefits to non-English speakers, and he filed a friend-of-the-court brief in support of Arizona’s S.B. 1070, a state-level anti-immigrant bill that was struck down by the Supreme Court on June 25, 2012. Cuccinelli even went as far as saying that he would favor an Arizona-style immigration law in Virginia.
- Nevertheless, both candidates have tried to distance themselves from previously harsh rhetoric on immigration. In 2007, McAullife went on public radio and condemned unauthorized immigrants as “people who are coming into this nation, taking our jobs.” But since then, he has done a complete about-face, now supporting immigration reform and the DREAM Act. On the other hand, in a 2012 interview on a conservative radio talk show, Cuccinelli compared unauthorized immigrants to rat families that need to be eradicated. He then referred to legalization as “amnesty” when addressing a conservative group at a town hall meeting on July 22. On September 13, however, Cuccinelli changed tactics, pointing to his Irish and Italian immigrant roots in an attempt to highlight his connection with the immigrant community. Two weeks later, during the gubernatorial debate on September 25, Cuccinelli refused to take a stance on the pathway to citizenship, saying only that there needs to be a compromise so they can move on to other bills. In March, the Cuccinelli campaign also quietly deleted the immigration section on his website, which detailed his opposition to reform and touted his support for anti-immigrant measures.
- Cuccinelli’s running mate, E.W. Jackson, has also distanced himself from extreme immigration views. Even though Jackson previously expressed his disgust that the federal government sued to stop Arizona’s S.B. 1070—stating he believes it is within the right of the state to protect its citizens and prosecute the “criminals” who are crossing the border without status—he has since talked about the need for immigration reform. In January, Jackson applauded the Senate Gang of Eight’s work on comprehensive immigration reform, talking about reform as a “human and moral issue.” Nonetheless, his statement on reform urged the Senate to prioritize border security, saying “we must develop reforms that protect our vital national security interests,” and he stopped short of endorsing any pathway to legal status.
In the past decade, Virginia’s Latino population grew by 300,000 people, and this trend will only continue. Similar to the country as a whole, Virginia is undergoing a demographic shift as people of color become a greater share of the population and whites become a lesser share. In fact, by 2016, Virginia will have almost 128,000 more Latino voters. These demographic changes alone make immigration a key issue for the gubernatorial election. But it is also likely that the next governor of the state will have to deal with pressing immigration questions. So as the election heads into its final week, the question for the candidates is whether they will follow the path of Arizona’s Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who signed S.B. 1070, or the path of California’s Gov. Jerry Brown (D), who just signed a slew of positive legislation that limits how state and local officials interact with federal immigration enforcement and allows unauthorized immigrants to receive driver’s licenses. We will know soon enough.
Sanam Malik is a Special Assistant for Immigration at the Center for American Progress. Sarah Masoud is an intern for Immigration at the Center for American Progress.