Virginia’s right-wing Republican governor, Bob McDonnell, has instructed the state’s Department of Motor Vehicles to stop issuing drivers’ licenses to immigrants who submit the federal Employment Authorization Document (EAD) as their identification.

Persons affected won’t mostly be undocumented immigrants, but various categories of non-citizens, including people actually in the country legally but who, for one reason or other, have not been issued a permanent legal resident visa. Some of these cards are issued to people who are very likely to get full legal immigrant status, others to people who will not. Categories of people who frequently ask for drivers’ licenses using these cards as ID include those allowed in the country under Temporary Protected Status (TPS) as well as asylum applicants and people granted humanitarian visas.

In announcing the policy change, the governor cited the case of Carlos Martinelly Montero, who was brought to the United States without papers from Bolivia when he was 8 years old. He was in the process of being deported when, driving drunk, he struck a car carrying four Catholic nuns, killing one and injuring three. He was in possession of Virginia driver’s license which had been issued to him on the basis of an EAD that he was permitted to have while his deportation case was considered.

Martinelly obviously learned his bad drinking and driving habits here in the United States and not in Bolivia, and the DMV never should have issued him his last drivers’ license if he had two previous DUI convictions.. But the case was used to bash immigrants nationwide and especially in Prince William County, Va., where the accident happened and which had already been a hotbed of anti-immigrant agitation.

The Temporary Protected Status category includes a big portion of the Salvadoran and other Central American immigrant communities in Virginia. Immigration attorneys estimate that there may be as many as 20,000 of these in Virginia alone. They are people who were here either without papers or with temporary visas when earthquakes hit El Salvador in 2001. The Bush administration issued the TPS protection in agreement with the right-wing Salvadoran government at the time, and it has been extended every year since. Many Salvadoran immigrants in the Washington area believe that the United States has used this agreement to get political concessions from El Salvador, which was the only Latin American country which sent troops for the U.S. invasion of Iraq. In El Salvador’s 2005 elections, the Bush administration issued threats that if the left-wing candidate, Shafik Handel, won the presidency, Salvadoran TPS holders might be endangered.

But there is always the possibility that a proportion of TPS holders and others will be able to change their status to that of a permanent resident, and eventually get U.S. citizenship and have children who are U.S. citizens. If there is comprehensive immigration reform, the entire TPS community could be given permanent legal status, putting them on the path to eventual U.S. citizenship and voting rights.

Virginia is a swing state that, in 2008, went for Obama and elected three new Democratic congresspersons. McDonnell’s predecessor was a Democrat, and the state now has two Democratic senators. Yet in 2009, hard-right GOP candidates won the positions of governor, lieutenant governor and attorney general, largely on the basis of low Democratic turnout, including by Latinos, African Americans and youth, the very people whose high turnout produced the opposite results the year before. As in other areas of the country, the most right-wing sectors of the Republican Party have used anti-immigrant rhetoric to stir up their base and create an atmosphere of fear going into November 2010.

Many TPS immigrants in Virginia work as gardeners and landscapers or in home repair and construction, and need to drive either their own or their employers’ vehicles, because of the nature of their jobs or because there is no public transportation. Immigration attorney Lisa Johnson Firth of Manassas in Prince William County, in a letter to the Washington Post on Sept. 10, points out that “Virginia will experience an exodus of hard working individuals and families that will cripple schools and further damage our sluggish economy.” The malicious S1070 law in Arizona has led to the departure of many Democratic-leaning Latino people from that state, and not only undocumented immigrants. The Republican right hopes that its fortunes will be improved thereby.

Could the idea be to achieve the same result in Virginia?





Emile Schepers
Emile Schepers

Emile Schepers is a veteran civil and immigrant rights activist. Born in South Africa, he has a doctorate in cultural anthropology from Northwestern University. He is active in the struggle for immigrant rights, in solidarity with the Cuban Revolution and a number of other issues. He writes from Northern Virginia.