Map of Virginia

Latino Migrant Life in Post-9/11 Virginia

Virginia Latinos have significantly reconfigured the demographic composition of long-established communities in only a couple of decades. Their visibility has become increasingly magnified because of their unprecedented cultural, religious, and ethnic diversity. Unprepared, local communities find themselves grappling with inadequate social and institutional systems to respond to the challenges of integration. As they struggle with growing demand for educational and social services for populations with limited English proficiency, several challenges have become painfully evident: an expanding presence of day laborers across suburban areas, residential overcrowding resulting from a shortage of affordable housing, social tensions, nativism, and migrant marginalization.

The terror attacks of September 11, 2001, have significantly exacerbated such tensions, increasing Latinos’ vulnerability and adversely affecting the Virginia Latino community in a number of ways. Over recent years, state and local police have been charged with broader enforcement duties to control undocumented migration. In Virginia, the anti-immigrant backlash that followed the terror attacks has been fueled by the fact that Virginia was one of three states that issued driver’s licenses to some of the plane hijackers. Consequently, the post-9/11 era has dramatically politicized the immigration debate with concomitant immigration policy changes that have targeted Latinos, further marginalizing them. In addition, Virginia law enforcement agencies have received additional

funding to develop a regional anti-gang task force to coordinate policing efforts in response to growing concern about youth gang violence across suburban northern Virginia.

Although the rationale behind some of these immigration policy changes was to deter potential terrorist and gang activity, such changes have contributed to a distorted public understanding of Latino migrants. This perception often blurs the lines between undocumented Latinos, terrorists, and gang members. Because Latinos constitute the majority of the undocumented, they have borne the brunt of this political backlash. For many Latino advocates and civil rights groups, the anti-immigrant backlash has become a more generalized attack on Latino residents, most likely driven by anxieties over demographic changes within Virginia communities.

Enacted after the terror attacks, the Patriot Act has made it possible for immigration authorities to detain citizens and noncitizens with less judicial review than before. Virginia Governor Mark R. Wagner signed the Legal Presence Law (SB1058 and HB1954) in 2003, which requires residents to show proof that they are legally present in the United States in order to obtain an original Virginia driver’s license, permit, or special identity card. Effective since January 1, 2004, the law has resulted in long lines and discriminatory practices against Latinos at the Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV).10 For many Latinos undocumented, documented, and with temporary visas or pending immigration paperwork the law has taken away their ability to perform daily activities, such as driving to work or taking children to school or to the doctor. Most poignantly, the Legal Presence Law has had a particularly adverse effect on Latinos in suburban and rural settings, which offer reduced public transportation options, as well as on agricultural workers, who cannot meet the residency requirement of the law because of the seasonal nature of their jobs.


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