RICHMOND, Va. -- A group of low-wage workers and immigrants rallied at Capitol Bell Tower Wednesday morning, calling on lawmakers to take action on issues important to their members. Advocates called for an increase in the minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, expanding Medicaid in Virginia, and allowing undocumented workers to apply for a drivers license.
Similar legislation in all three areas have been defeated in years past, and even though Republicans, who opposed the measures, still hold slim majorities in both chambers of the General Assembly, community organizers said issues important to immigrants and low wage workers are not going away.
In fact, they said November's wave election that saw Democrats gain 15 seats in the House of Delegates was a sign Virginia voters support a minimum wage increase and expanding Medicaid.
“At the end of the day, the immigrant community is non-partisan. It’s more socially conservative," said Luis Aguilar, an advocate for the immigrants rights group CASA. "I think the parties have been failing the immigrant communities, both of parties, by not being able to govern, by not being able to find practical solutions.”
"If you’re not doing those things, I don’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, we’re going to come after you and make sure you’re not re-elected next time," said Jaime Contreres, Vice President of SEIU 32BJ, a union for low-wage workers.
Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney addressed the crowd of several dozen community members, lending his voice in support of their efforts.
Advocates said low-wage workers and immigrants are drivers of Virginia's economy, and lawmakers should take their electoral power seriously. They said proving that by requiring Virginia businesses pay a low wage worker a livable pay rate in 2018 should happen sooner rather than later.
So far this session, several minimum wage increase bills were defeated by the Senate Commerce and Labor committee. On Wednesday, the Senate Transportation Committee "passed by indefinitely" a bill that would have permitted undocumented workers to obtain a drivers license. Republicans have voiced an open mind for Medicaid expansion following November's election, but still argue it would become a drag on Virginia's balanced budget.
“I know a lot of far left activists groups feel extremely emboldened by the results of last year’s election, but we still feel like a number of those things are not good public policy and not the direction we want to head," said Del. Todd Gilbert (R), the House Majority Leader.
Gilbert said his members cannot support the form of Medicaid expansion being pitched by Governor Northam and Virginia Democrats, but he said the are "re-evaluating" where their members stand on expanding Medicaid in some form.