Competing immigration rallies at VA state capital highlight a nation (and Commonwealth) divided

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National tension surrounding immigration laws converged in two competing rallies in downtown Richmond this past weekend.

One rally, organized by Trump’s former Virginia campaign chair and Virginia GOP Gubernatorial candidate, Corey Stewart, opposes sanctuary cities. The other rally, organized by a group called Richmond Struggle, supports sanctuary cities.

A crowd of nearly 100 people holding various brightly colored, homemade signs gathered near the bell tower at the Virginia State Capitol for the counter rally to Stewart. Meanwhile a crowd of nearly the same amount, holding official campaign signs for Stewart, huddled around a podium to listen to him speak.

“I want to start by thanking all these lunatics over her for for bringing out the press,” Stewart said as he took to the podium and gestured towards the counter rally where citizens chanted. “It is just like the Left to accuse you of what they’re doing. They accuse us of hatred. They accuse us of trying to stifle a right, but what are they doing today? They’re trying to drown us out. Let me tell them something that everybody in Prince William County already knows, I never back down!”

Prince William County, where Stewart is chair of the Board of County Supervisors, Police Department is one of the few known police departments to actively comply with federal orders on immigration issues after a 2007 audit led to greater enforcement.

Stewart’s podium was lined with pictures of Americans who had been the victim of crimes committed by undocumented people, however data shows those in question are significantly less likely to commit crimes.

“This is an example of the country being divided, but maybe that’s a good thing,” said Phil Wilayto, a local activist with the Defenders for Freedom, Justice & Equality. “One side is racist and the other side is opposed to racism. Corey Stewart made a national name for himself by coming up with the most draconian laws against immigrants in Prince William County. This man is so Right-wing he got strung out of the Trump campaign in Virginia.”

Stewart had been associated with Trump’s presidential campaign until being let go in October 2016 after his participation in a protest outside of the Republican National Committee headquarters.

According to Stewart’s Gubernatorial campaign website, he promises to work side-by-side with the Trump Administration and Virginia’s law enforcement to arrest and deport illegal immigrants. He also promises that he will oppose any form of amnesty.

“You can thank [Mayor] Levar Stoney for this,” Stewart said of why he hosted the event. “For declaring Richmond a Sanctuary City. I think it’s despicable that he’s more interested in not offending anyone, than protecting the lives and the rights of his citizens.”

Mayor Levar Stoney issued a directive in early February which urged Richmond police not to comply with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Richmond police had said they already weren’t involved in ICE-related reporting, however Virginia state law requires sheriff’s offices to report undocumented immigrants once they are arrested. Similarly, when you are arrested in Virginia and most states, you are fingerprinted and those prints are sent to the FBI which can determine immigration status and alert ICE as needed.

According to the Times Dispatch, Virginia detained almost 20 thousand undocumented immigrants between 2008 and 2015, though that number is believed to be higher.

Though many Stewart supporters remained close to his podium, a few ventured towards a sidewalk in the park that served as an unofficial division between the two rallies. Adam Nathanson, an adult literacy teacher, exchanged heated words across the line with one of the men who rallied in support of Stewart.

two men argue at the rallies
Nathanson (right) argues with a Stewart supporter.

“He was saying that we’re not Americans and that we should get out of this country,” Nathanson said. “I came here and he came here from different sides, from different viewpoints. In reality neither one of us was harassing each other because we both came to the event.”

Members of the Capitol Police department, as well as volunteers associated with the American Civil Liberties Union, wandered around the rallies to keep an eye on participants.

“We’re not here on any one side,” said Colin McNamara, one of several ACLU volunteers that skirted the perimeter of the rallies. “We’re just here to monitor the interactions between demonstrators, protesters and police to make sure that everyone’s First Amendment right is protected.”

As for Stewart, going forward in his campaign, he plans to lower the income tax in Virginia, pass a Constitutional carry law so that people do not need a permit for concealed carry, and of course “crackdown on illegal immigration.”

Stewart is currently polling second to last in the upcoming Governor’s race, according to February 2017 CNU poll. He’s also the only candidate to have a negative opinion rating.

Former chairman of the Republican National Committee Ed Gillespie currently leads the pack of six possible candidates including both Dems – current Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam and former Virginia Congressman Tom Perriello. With four months to the primaries, “No Opinion” is still the leading response in questions about who Virginians would vote for this November.

This article was originally published in RVA Magazine.

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