RICHMOND, Va. — Immigration policy, though mostly made at the federal level, is becoming an increasingly charged topic in the closely watched race for governor in Virginia.

A perennial campaign flashpoint in the immigrant-rich Old Dominion, the issue has gained prominence because of President Donald Trump’s hardline stances on visas and deportations. Support and opposition to Trump’s plans among Virginia voters has heightened and helped shape the debate between Republican Ed Gillespie and Democrat Ralph Northam.


THE ISSUE

Democrats are trying to make Trump the focus of the immigration debate, saying the president is hurting the state’s immigration population with his push to ban visitors from some majority Muslim countries and end a program that protects young immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children from deportation. Democrats and Northam’s campaign have continually criticized Gillespie for mostly siding with Trump’s immigration policies.

Republicans are trying to make the issue about law and order, pointing to violent crimes committed by unlawful immigrant gang members as proof that tougher restrictions are needed. Gillespie and the GOP are suggesting Northam would be too lenient toward unlawful immigrants who commit crimes.

Governors have no control over federal immigration law, but there are several state-specific policies the next governor can impact, including whether people living in the country illegally should be eligible for in-state tuition discounts and state driver’s licenses.


CANDIDATES’ VIEWS

On those two issues, the difference is clear: Gillespie opposes in-state tuition discounts and state driver’s licenses for unlawful immigrants, which Northam supports.

The two are odds over state legislation supporters say would prevent the establishment of so-called “sanctuary cities,” a term without a legal definition that’s used by immigration advocates and opponents in different ways. Generally speaking, they are cities and counties that limit their cooperation with federal immigration activities.

Gillespie supports state legislation that would prevent local governments from enacting policies that “restrict” the enforcement of federal immigration law, saying such a law would prevent the establishment of sanctuary cities.

“If someone is here illegally and they commit a crime, they should be deported,” Gillespie said.

Democrats, including Northam, say such legislation is redundant with existing federal law and sends an unwelcoming message to the state’s immigrant community. Northam said violent criminals should be punished, irrespective of their immigration status.

He also accused Republicans of “fear mongering” and said he’d work as governor to send a message that Virginia is welcoming.

“Our lights are on, our doors are open,” Northam said.

Libertarian candidate Cliff Hyra said in-state tuition should not be available for people living in the country illegally, the state should allow them to get driver’s licenses if it is the least costly option for the state, and that local law enforcement should comply with any legal requests from federal agencies.


SHIFTS FROM THE PAST

Both Northam and Gillespie’s rhetoric on immigration issues have shifted from their past public statements.

Gillespie is a former Republican National Committee chairman who has long advocated for the GOP to be more welcoming of immigrants. In his 2006 book, “Winning Right,” Gillespie warned Republican politicians to resist the “political siren’s song of anti-immigration rhetoric.” He was also critical of a Republican gubernatorial campaign’s decision to run anti-illegal immigration ads in the 2005 Virginia race.

Now, Gillespie is running ads with virtually similar tones, including one ad featuring a county sheriff saying Gillespie will “get tough on illegal immigration and keep your family safe.”

In Northam’s first race for the state senate in 2007, he had a different focus than the one he has now. He advocated for Virginia being “even more stringent than we are now in fighting illegal immigration,” and said the state should act as “strong partners” with federal law enforcement.


This is the second in a series that will look at issues facing Virginia ahead of the Nov. 7 election.