What Ever Happened to Virginia's Law, the State Bill Protecting Immigrants?

Chris Walker
Representative Susan Lontine, one of the Virginia's Law sponsors, at a press conference on April 25.
There was a PR blitz, a large press conference, and a flurry of news coverage — including by Westword — when House representatives Dan Pabon and Susan Lontine introduced a bill during the legislative session that aimed to protect non-citizens at schools, hospitals, courthouses and other public locations by limiting state cooperation with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Virginia’s Law, which the Democratic lawmakers named after a woman who was detained by ICE in 2011 after reporting a domestic-violence incident, would have barred all county law enforcement agencies from honoring ICE detainer requests (holding targets for ICE in jail) or giving immigration-related information to ICE. It also prevented public employees from contacting ICE unless the federal agents presented a signed warrant.

Virginia’s Law passed out of the State, Veterans and Military Affairs Committee by a party-line vote of 6-3 and was referred to the House Appropriations Committee, where it would be heard next. But the bill was never scheduled for a hearing; it didn't end up in the Appropriations Committee before the legislative session was concluded on Wednesday, May 9.

So what happened to Virginia’s Law?

According to one of the bill sponsors, Representative Susan Lontine, the legislation was shelved due to some sobering political calculus.

"The reason this bill didn't go any further was because we didn't have the support this year to pass it on the [Democratically controlled] House floor, even,” Lontine says.

After the bill was introduced, Lontine says, she discovered a deeper philosophical divide with Republican lawmakers concerning immigration than she had anticipated.

"There was some concern that the bill was standing in the way of the federal government, but the main objection was the belief that we were extending constitutional protections to people who aren't citizens,” Lontine says. “Many of our friends across the aisle are under impression that non-citizens are not deserving of constitutional protections, which isn't true."

Lontine says it became apparent that the proposed legislation had no chance of passing the Republican-controlled Senate, since GOP lawmakers including Dave Williams criticized the bill as a state sanctuary policy. As a result, some Democratic lawmakers in the House who are coming up for re-election and are in competitive districts decided that it wasn’t worth endangering their re-election bids by voting for Virginia’s Law.

“Some folks felt that supporting what they believe was good policy would somehow jeopardize them in their districts, where it's competitive," Lontine says. "I'm not real comfortable saying that, but it's true."

The lawmaker maintains that these political realities did not become apparent until after the bill was introduced on April 20. "This wasn't to grandstand or be a message bill; we genuinely thought we had an opportunity to move it forward," she explains. “We also felt that it was the right thing to do. There are real fears, and I have a lot of people in my district [covering parts of Denver and Jefferson County] who are being impacted in the worst ways by federal behavior toward undocumented people. I have clinics where people are afraid to go to the doctor and parents are being harassed by ICE when they're dropping their kids off at school."

So will Virginia’s Law will be reintroduced during a future legislative session?

Lontine says that it depends on what happens during the election this coming November. "It all hinges on whether we are able to flip the state Senate to a Democratic majority,” she says. "Republicans have a one-seat majority, so who knows what's going to happen?"