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Immigration at issue in Virginia governor's race

Want to know what Americans think about illegal immigration? On Nov. 8, Virginia offers the nation something far more meaningful than any opinion poll — a genuine election in which nearly two million people will vote and one in which immigration will be a prominent issue.
Virginia gubernatorial candidates Republican Jerry Kilgore, left, and Democrat Tim Kaine, right, shake hands after their July 16 debate.Steve Helber / AP
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Want to know what the American people think about illegal immigration? On Nov. 8, Virginia offers the nation something far more meaningful than any opinion poll — a genuine election in which nearly two million people will vote and one in which immigration will be a prominent issue.

Republican gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore denounced the decision last month by the northern Virginia town of Herndon to open a taxpayer-supported hiring center for day laborers, many of whom are likely illegal immigrants.

“I just don’t think we should be using taxpayer dollars to fund illegal behavior, to promote illegal behavior,” Kilgore told Tuesday. “I think it says to those illegally in this country and to those wanting to come illegally, ‘We’ll make a place for you if you violate our rules.’ And we found our greatest support on this issue is from those immigrants who came here legally.”

The debate in Virginia may grow more heated after the news Wednesday that Carlos Bustamante Medieta, a Honduran immigrant day laborer living in Annandale, Va. has been charged with murder in the stabbing death of Hak Bong Kim, a contractor who had hired him to work on a home in a Maryland suburb of Washington D.C. Police would not say whether Medieta is a legal or illegal immigrant.

On Tuesday, just hours before the news of the murder charge, Kilgore made a related point in an interview with during a campaign stop in Bedford, Va.

Fear for public safety
“My other fear about the Herndon situation is that individuals are going to drive up, pick up somebody at a government-sponsored center, and assume that these individuals are safe from a public safety standpoint,” Kilgore said. “That’s not the case. They are not running background checks, they’re not even asking for identification.”

Kilgore, the former attorney general of Virginia, faces two candidates in the Nov. 8 election, Democratic Lt. Gov. Tim Kaine, the former mayor of Richmond, and Republican state senator Russ Potts, who is running as an independent.

Kaine campaign spokeswoman Delacey Skinner said Kaine thinks that “obviously there are problems with illegal immigration and these problems need to be addressed. The federal government needs to be doing its job.”

Kaine “respects the right of local government (in Herndon) to deal with the economic development challenge in the way they see fit,” she added.

As for Kilgore, “he’s engaged in political grandstanding,” Skinner said.

Kilgore’s stand on illegal immigration provoked ferocious criticism on the editorial page of the Washington Post, which has a daily circulation of nearly 320,000 in Virginia.

Succumbing to temptation?
The paper’s editorial said Kilgore was “evidently grasping for an issue to excite his conservative base” and had succumbed to “the temptation to fan the flames with a naked appeal for votes.”

Outside the Aug. 16 meeting at which the Herndon Town Council debated the day labor center, Patti Nelson, who lives in nearby Loudon County, was there to support the day laborers.

She, like the Post, condemned Kilgore. “I think he has over-stepped his bounds. For the people of Herndon and Fairfax County, this is a community issue that needs to be solved on a local level. I do not hear from Mr. Kilgore a solution to the issue. If he has a lot to say, I wish he would help come up with a solution to the problem.”

She added, “It’s an issue of human rights and human dignity, treating people who are in this country with respect.”

Nelson is member of a group of northern Virginia former supporters of Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich from the 2004 campaign called The Progressive Action League.

“We’re here supporting people who are trying to feed their children many of whom are here legally,” said K.D. Kidder, another Progressive Action League member. “They’re good family members, they’re not scary, they’re grateful for the jobs, and they’ll do anything.”

If Kilgore wins on Nov. 8, he’ll have a national platform to address the immigration issue. But what would he say to President Bush and a Republican-controlled Congress about it?

Kilgore said his message to Bush is: “Let’s have clear immigration laws. Let’s force individuals to come to this country legally so that we know exactly who is here and so we have some documentation.”

During a day of campaigning in southwest Virginia Tuesday, Kilgore said “there’s a growing segment of the population that will vote on immigration issues. It made into the top ten of issues and it’s moving up every day.”

Test in northern Virginia
It is in northern Virginia — where the town of Herndon and most of the immigrant day labor activity is —that Kilgore’s stand will be a test study in whether an anti-illegal stance helps or hurts a candidate.

In the last gubernatorial election, the northern Virginia counties and cities accounted for 22 percent of the statewide vote. In the 2001 governor's race, Democrat Mark Warner carried those northern Virginia counties and cities with 56 percent of the vote.

In this year’s race to succeed Warner, the two major candidates neatly personify the urban/rural split in Virginia politics and American politics.

Kilgore grew up on a tobacco and cattle farm in a rural county just north of the Tennessee border.

Kaine grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, went to Harvard Law School and is the former mayor of the heavily Democratic city of Richmond.

Kilgore is a strong proponent of the death penalty and claims to be more committed to gun owners’ rights than Kaine is.

Extolling gun ownership
“Protecting the Second Amendment is not just some issue I’ve stumbled upon in an election year,” Kilgore told a small rally of “Sportsmen for Kilgore” in Vinton, Va. Tuesday. “It’s how I was raised and who I am. If you grew up on a farm as I did, owning a gun is not just about hunting, it’s also about protecting yourself and your property.”

He added, “There are few moments that can compare with that moment when your dad gave you your first gun. For many of us, that moment was when we went from being a boy to being treated as a young man.”

Kaine spokeswoman Skinner said Kaine “supports Second Amendment rights and will not propose any new anti-gun legislation.”

Republicans assail the action Kaine took as mayor of Richmond to rent busses to bring activists to the Million Mom March, an event staged in Washington, D.C. in 2000 by gun control groups. Kaine “recognized that he’d made a mistake” in using public money to rent the busses, Skinner said. “His heart got ahead of his head,” she explained, pointing out that he then raised private money to reimburse the city.

Kilgore insinuates that if he became governor Kaine would not carry out the death penalty.

Since 1976, Virginia has ranked second behind Texas in the number of death sentences carried out, with 94 convicts having been put to death.

Kaine “could implement a moratorium on a case-by-case basis,” Kilgore speculated Tuesday. “My opponent has a lifetime of activism against the death penalty,” he said. In the 2001 campaign Kaine called for a moratorium on executions in Virginia.

Skinner said if elected Kaine would carry out the death penalty and would use the clemency power exactly as previous governors have used it.