RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — The results of last week's Quinnipiac Poll question on immigration were clear and loud: Virginia wants a tough Arizona-style "show me your papers" law allowing police to check the legal status of people stopped or arrested for other reasons.
By almost a 2-to-1 ratio, registered Virginia voters surveyed by the respected Quinnipiac University Polling Institute said they favor an Arizona-style crackdown — at least the police checks provision of Arizona's sweeping law that wasn't voided by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Guess what: Virginia put a version of that law in place in 2008, two years before Arizona. It requires Virginia officers to check every person they arrest and take into custody to determine whether they are in the United States legally. Virginia long ago mandated checks on arrests and in many other circumstances, including admission to a state hospital, to obtain a driver's license, Medicaid benefits and, in some cases, employment.
There are dozens of provisions in Virginia's statutes aimed at isolating illegal immigrants. Some go back generations. With an economy still in its sickbed four years after a frightful meltdown, a federal government pilling up $4 billion in new debt daily, and jobs easy to lose and hard to find, paranoia and anger find an easy foil in immigrants, particularly undocumented ones. And as Quinnipiac found, it stirs powerful feelings that politicians can harness to push for more — even sometimes redundant — restrictive laws targeting immigrants.
When asked if they supported the Arizona model allowing police to verify the legal status of people stopped or arrested, 64 percent of the 1,673 registered voters surveyed said yes and 31 percent said no while 5 percent offered no answer. The survey, based on telephone interviews, was conducted from July 10-16 and had a margin of sampling error of plus or minus 2.4 percentage points.
Asked if Virginia should implement the same policy, 62 percent said yes, 34 percent said no and 4 percent didn't know.
Prince William County, which has a rich blend of Hispanic and other ethnic groups and has been on the front lines of skirmishes over immigration policy for years, tried a similar approach several years ago, but jettisoned it as a budget-buster.
In a twist, when poll respondents were asked what they thought of President Barack Obama's decision to allow young illegal immigrants who came to the United States as children to obtain work permits and avoid deportation, 53 percent favored the decision to 40 percent who did not with 7 percent undecided.
For the past two years, conservative Republican House of Delegates members from Prince William County — Virginia's premiere testing ground on immigration issues — have unsuccessfully pushed bills that restate and make marginal advances to Virginia's 4-year-old check-on-arrest law.
"Some people say that what's on the books is already sufficient, but this clarifies the language and makes it more specific," said Del. Scott Lingamfelter, who sponsored the bill in 2011. Del. Richard Anderson, R-Woodbridge, carried the bill this year.
But Lingamfelter, who has announced his candidacy for the 2013 lieutenant governor election, conceded that police "can already make the checks right now. Any locality in the state can do it. It's considered acceptable police work."
This week's poll means the bill is probably bound for another encore before Virginia's GOP-ruled House and Senate starting in January, Lingamfelter said.
Claire Guthrie Gastanaga, the newly installed executive director of the Virginia ACLU who has spent years lobbying the General Assembly on behalf of Latinos and other immigrant groups, voices frustration over it.
"We have at least 50 laws on the books that directly affect immigrants, many of which require some sort of check on immigration status," she said Friday.
In the Legislature, she said, "the first reaction (to the poll) is, 'Well, we need to do something to respond to this public concern.' Well, no you don't because you already have."
And in more ways than one might imagine, according to a list Gastanaga gleaned from Virginia's statutes. The Department of Mental Health, under a law enacted before 1950 during the time of the state's shameful experiment with the discredited pseudoscience of eugenics, must determine the nationality of anyone admitted to a state facility and to report to federal immigration authorities anyone found to be an "alien."
Sheriffs and the Department of Corrections are required under another pre-1950 law to identify "criminal aliens" in the state's jails and prisons and report them.
"We've been at this a long time," Gastanaga said.
Politically, a tough line on illegal immigrants has been generally good for Republicans, said political consultant and retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor Robert D. Holsworth. They have to be careful, however, not to overdose on it.
"On one hand, you have a 2-to-1 majority in a poll showing people favor a show-your-papers law," Holsworth said. But the electoral consequences of enacting ever more strident illegal immigration laws could be damage to the GOP's prospects among the fast-growing ethnic and minority populations, he said.
"Then one day legal immigrants hear this and they start to worry and start asking themselves 'Who are you talking about here?' and they start talking about that," Holsworth said.
Bob Lewis has covered Virginia politics and government for The Associated Press