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Immigration Amnesty’s Next Front

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By Evan Wyloge

CULPEPER, Va. — Steve Jenkins’ linebacker size might only be eclipsed by his smile.

Standing in front of the Culpeper Town Council building, he waves enthusiastically before offering a firm handshake and pat on the shoulder.

Jenkins grew up in this small, central Virginia town. He played high school football, went on to become a police officer and start a family. He now coaches high school football.

Jenkins sums himself up easily.

“I always describe myself as just an old country boy who really believes that America is the greatest country in the world,” he said with a nod and his trademark smile. “My family’s been here in Culpeper for over 200 years, and I’m extremely proud of that.”

Jenkins spent a number of years on the county Board of Supervisors and was appointed to the State Criminal Justice Board under former Gov. George Allen. Three years ago, fellow citizens asked him to run for the town council.

“The reason constituents asked me to run was due to the changes that were coming into our community,” Jenkins said. “They felt that, if nothing else, maybe I have a big enough mouth where I could at least begin sharing some of their concerns and voicing those.”

Since his election, Jenkins has become something of a spokesman for Culpeper residents who think illegal immigration is “a plague that’s spread across our nation,” as Jenkins put it. “It’s no one’s fault but our own.”

For residents like Jenkins, Culpeper’s rich history and family ties are its strengths. Many families have been in the area for generations. So it’s no surprise that the new, growing Hispanic population has produced considerable hand-wringing and a certain amount of conflict.

Culpeper epitomizes the change in Hispanic immigration to the United States over the past two decades. Between 1990 and 2007, U.S. Census data shows that Culpeper County experienced a general population growth of 62 percent, nearly three times the national rate. But over that same time, the Hispanic population of Culpeper County increased 18 fold, according to research from the Pew Hispanic Center.

When the Immigration Reform and Control Act was passed in 1986, paving the way for residency and citizenship for more than 2 million undocumented immigrants, the vast majority of that population was living in the Southwest. A review of federal data shows that most of those who took advantage of amnesty lived in metropolitan areas in California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas.

If another immigration reform bill passes and offers a similar amnesty, its effects will be felt far more deeply in less traditional Hispanic areas. Small, rural cities in the Midwest, Deep South and Eastern seaboard are among the places that have seen the greatest growth in Hispanic populations over the past 20 years.

Like the rest of the country in recent years, Culpeper rode the housing market roller coaster to what was an unsustainable pinnacle. Along with the building boom came a need for labor willing to work in construction, and at the time the thinking was: the cheaper, the better.

“That brought an enormous change to our community. Some of it has been positive change, some probably not so positive,” Jenkins said. “It’s been disturbing for residents of the community.”

He decided when he ran for office that he wouldn’t let what he sees as collective acquiescence lead to regret for inaction.

“I’ve never believed that you have to be eaten by a bear to know when one is standing right behind you,” Jenkins said, “and I think the issue of illegal immigration is a huge bear.”


During the 1980s, Martin Bernal traveled illegally from Durango, Mexico, across the border into southern New Mexico to pick apples, peaches, peppers and onions. Like so many other Mexicans, he felt the pay was well worth the risk of being caught. He could make as much in a few months in the United States as he did in a year in Mexico.

When the Immigration Reform and Control Act passed in 1986, Bernal realized that he fit the requirements for special agricultural worker legalization. He remembers the challenge of submitting his application — his boss didn’t want to admit he had employed undocumented workers. Eventually, Bernal applied for residency under the program and was granted temporary, then permanent, residence.

In 1989, he moved to Culpeper, Va.

Here, Bernal found plenty of work, and he and his wife started a family. He had gone from being an illegal immigrant to living what many consider the immigrant dream. But he aspired for more.

He told his wife he was going to own a store, then a restaurant. And that’s what he did.

On May 1, 2004, Bernal opened El Nopal, a Hispanic grocery store and money-wiring service. It was one of the first Hispanic-owned businesses in Culpeper but certainly not the last. Dozens of other Hispanic-owned groceries, restaurants, cosmetic stores and beauty salons opened in the following years.

Five years to the day after opening El Nopal, Bernal opened a Mexican restaurant of the same name.

“People think I’m a dreamer. They call me crazy — even my wife,” he said shyly. “But I never gave up.”


As the housing boom continued and the Hispanic and undocumented population grew in Culpeper, so did the public debate about illegal immigration. Councilman Jenkins and others began to consider what the town could do to curtail illegal immigration. Soon it became one of the most sharply contested issues in the community.

Gary Close, Culpeper County’s commonwealth attorney, has a unique perspective on the growth of the Hispanic immigrant population: He handles the criminal docket and oversees the general operations of the criminal justice system.

“We saw an overall increase in the criminal case volume, but what was really significant is the number of people coming through the court who don’t speak English, don’t have a license and don’t have a Social Security number,” Close said.

The court had to begin offering a translation service that has slowed the criminal justice system significantly, he said.

“Each question has to be asked twice and answered twice,” Close said. “That might not sound like very much, but it uses resources in terms of attorneys, judges, bailiffs, not to mention translators.”

Close said local officials asked him to research what could be done to deter illegal immigration. He reported back that the federal laws are clear: Towns and counties are very limited in their jurisdictions.

Culpeper’s mayor, Pranas Rimeikis, a Lithuanian immigrant, whose family was granted refugee status in the late 1950s, said there was pressure on the city to take action, but he and other city officials were unwilling to buck federal law.

“The stance we took was: Those are all federal issues,” Rimeikis said with a shrug. “We’re here to fix potholes, provide parks, ensure safe streets — that kind of stuff.”

So in the fall of 2007, immigration opponents decided on another approach: They would begin pressuring officials to crack down on day laborers.

“I’m not sure why that upsets people — to see people hanging out on the side of the road looking for work,” Rimeikis said.

But it did. Councilman Jenkins and a handful of Culpeper residents pushed for measures to stop day laborers from congregating along Business Route 29, a small highway north of downtown.

But most of the day laborers gathered on private property — in parking lots and gas stations where local law enforcement didn’t have authority to stop them.

Not to be deterred, Jenkins and the group he helped found, Help Protect Culpeper, petitioned for signs to be posted discouraging gatherings at any place where they thought the crowd might pose a public safety hazard.

After months of fruitless debate between the group and Culpeper’s Public Safety Committee, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a slightly more aggressive law than the one on the books. It allowed the posting of signs in public areas prohibiting loitering where it might jeopardize public safety but steered clear of trying to regulate gatherings on private property.

The signs that now stand along Business Route 29 tell loiterers that they can be found in violation of traffic law. But the signs haven’t dissuaded those in search of jobs. Day laborers still wait for work on the private property adjacent to the highway.


Commonwealth Attorney Gary Close has attempted to address illegal immigration by turning the names of suspected illegal immigrants over to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency.

“The best I knew we could do was report suspected names to ICE,” Close said. “So over the past three years, we reported at least 3,000 names to them.”

Close compiled the names from the county’s criminal docket. “If they had no drivers’ license, didn’t speak the language and had no Social Security number, we would report them,” he said.

Although the list was substantial, Close said he received nothing more than a “thank you” from the agency. He would have liked to see more action, but acknowledged that ICE concentrates its resources on only the most egregious criminal cases.


Mayor Rimeikis doesn’t agree with those in Culpeper who say social services are being drained by illegal immigrants who don’t contribute to the system.

He served on the governor’s board on immigration, spending 18 months considering both legal and illegal immigration. He has come to believe that the concern about immigrants draining social services is based on nothing more than misconception.

“Certain things — emergency medical care — are mandated. And to get social services, you have to be documented,” Rimeikis said. “Some people think these people are out on the government dole, but it’s just not the case.”

Lisa Peacock, who manages the town’s social services agency, confirmed that to receive social services a person has to be in the country legally. However, Peacock pointed out that American-born children of illegal immigrants can qualify for services, even if their parents do not.

Lee Kirk, president and CEO of Culpeper Regional Hospital, said he’s had town and county officials ask if he can quantify the impact of undocumented immigrants.

Kirk said it’s not possible to draw definitive conclusions from the data the hospital tracks. Service for anyone without insurance or who doesn’t make payments for his or her care is categorized as bad debt. With proof of a low enough income, some qualify for charity care, he said.

“Our charity and bad debt cases went up from about 7 percent to about 9 percent over the years of biggest growth in Culpeper,” Kirk said. “My sense is: Yes, some part of that had to do with undocumented immigrants.”

In 2008, the hospital recorded $3 million in charity care, for which the state reimburses a small fraction. The portion that can be attributed to undocumented immigrants is part of what Kirk calls a “sick tax.”

“Twenty, 25, 30 percent of what anyone pays for health care goes to pay for those who aren’t covered,” Kirk said. “That’s just how our health care system works.”

Kirk is cautious when he talks about the impact of undocumented immigrants on health care because there are no hard numbers and he knows how heated the discussion can get.

All he will say: “It’s probably been a couple million dollars in service provided.”

Kirk noted that since the recession began, he’s seen a decrease in Hispanic patients — from 5 percent of all inpatient health care three years ago to 3.7 percent this year. Hispanic outpatient care has gone from 4.5 percent to 4.2 percent, and there are fewer Hispanic patients in obstetrics, he said.


These days, there are fewer day laborers waiting along Business Route 29 as well, and that seems to be calming the public debate in Culpeper over illegal immigration.

Councilman Jenkins, however, is standing firm. He said he will oppose any federal amnesty for undocumented immigrants, as he and other members of Help Save Culpeper did in 2006 and 2007.

“When they crossed the border in the back of a hay wagon, covered in hay, covered in chickens, they knew what they were doing was illegal,” Jenkins said. “Amnesty is a free pass. It justifies your wrong, and I don’t agree with it.”

Bernal sees the issue from the point of view of those, who like him, came to this country for opportunities they could not find at home.

“If people come to this country, it’s because they’re hungry,” he said. “They want to get a house, raise a family, take their kids to school.”

Bernal said that when he talks with other Hispanics in Culpeper, they’re hopeful that a new immigration reform bill will include a provision for legal residency for those who don’t have it.

“Everybody is praying for it. Back two years ago we prayed for it,” he said. “But we’re happy to see the change with Mr. Obama. Maybe he’ll give us the chance.”

Bernal is happy living in Culpeper, raising three children and running two businesses. He doesn’t see himself leaving any time soon. Besides, with exactly five years between opening his convenience store and opening his restaurant, Bernal said he’s looking for the next challenge.

In five more years, he just may have to run for the city council.

Main | Amnesty In The Land of Enchantment | Amnesty’s Next Front: Small Town USA
IRCA, The First Amnesty: What It Is, Why It Matters | What’s Next in the Amnesty Debate?