Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Interview: Andres Tobar

The interview with Mr. Tobar took place on Monday April 27 at the Silver Diner in Clarendon.

To get this interview, as well as the others that I conducted, to a similar, readable size, I had to cut quite a bit of material. If I took out more than a word or two (or if the words I erased were more substantial than “and” or “but”), I inserted a three-dot ellipsis (…). If I inserted anything the speaker did not actually say, I used square brackets [like these] to show my insertion.

Otherwise, the words are full quotes. Despite having to remove a lot of content from each of the interviews, I try to make sure the quotes still make sense and are in context. I will happily run corrections or clarifications if the candidate or his campaign can show that it is merited.

My own questions were edited, at times, for clarity and length.--ST

Buckingham HeraldTrib (Steve Thurston): What are some of the stories that you’ve heard when you’ve knocked on doors?

Andres Tobar: I’ve heard from one parent who commented that but for Medicaid his whole family would have been devastated, and thank God the state does have programs that are offering a helping hand for folks in crisis, or when some of their children have certain illnesses that they couldn’t cope by themselves with, so they get a helping hand…

(Click to enlarge the image.)

In fact one of the questions that was asked in one of the debates was what would we cut in light of fiscal situations. What I indicated is, rather than saying what I would cut, I said what I would preserve. Number one is I would preserve our fund for education because I’m very firm that my first priority is education, to make sure that every child gets a shot. I’m a strong advocate for universal pre-school. So as children are ready to come to school, let’s make sure they’re ready to learn.

I did not learn how to speak English until I started the first grade. My parents were immigrants from Mexico. I hope you don’t think I’m playing the immigrant card too hard, but there’s stories at times, you know, that we bring. Our backgrounds are so different, and at times we see people speaking in English, and after awhile we can’t tell the difference of who’s doing what, and we assume everybody’s stories are the same, and they’re not…

BHT: Universal Pre-school died this year when Gov. Tim Kaine tried to get it passed through the legislature, yet it's something all the candidates in this race support. Assuming that the economy is in the same shape next year, what is the second best plan, less than Universal Pre-K, but something that would get at what you’re hoping for?

AT: …Once you get down there, it’s going to be the art of negotiation and compromise. I know that. I’m a very, very realist. But what I’d like to do is make sure that as many young people as possible are going to be having access to this, so they get ready to learn.

(Click to enlarge the image.)

As I was pointing out to you, when I was a child, I didn’t know how to speak English until the first grade, and for the first four years, I was learning the language, not the content…You’re trying to figure out how to put those phrases together as opposed to trying to learn the history or all the other things in the content that you’re learning…

You know we have a nine percent drop-out rate for drop-outs in general,…for Latinos it’s a 20 percent rate…We need to take some initiative of how to engage these young people, provide a variety of things like tutoring and counseling and other things that are going to give them the assistance they need to catch-up….

Of course, with respect to teachers, I want teachers to be very competitive in terms of salaries. I would love to have teachers and our police and fire-fighters and our hard-working men and women in blue collar industries to also be able to afford to live in Arlington. I’m a strong proponent of affordable housing.

BHT: Another question in education. Tell me more about the federal DREAM Act that would allow kids who might not have all the documentation, but have been here for years to go to college paying in-state tuition.

AT: …That would be for our young people who are going through our schools and graduating from our schools and their parents are paying taxes, and they’re either on the way to become legal or as soon as they’re eligible, they will start in the program. But actually the DREAM Act goes further than that….[In Virginia] we’re trying to pass something that is somewhat comparable but somewhat palatable for the legislature that we’ve got down there.

The DREAM Act literally would allow for the young people that are graduating from schools that wanted to go to college to be allowed to go to college [with] in-state tuition….As they do that they… would be on a course to become legal residents. And so that would get away from all the challenges that we have right now with respect to immigration…

BHT: And so being a part of the DREAM Act would be a part of becoming a citizen?

AT: Yes, yeah. And it’s something that is very logical, because doesn’t it make sense that we’ve got young people that want to go to college and stay in this country, that we ought to give them a way of doing that? This is going to be the workforce of tomorrow…

BHT: I can hear the conservatives screaming at you right now. You’re either rewarding people who haven’t followed the rules by waiting in their own countries for the chance at immigration, and then you’re giving a spot in college at a lower tuition to them when it could have gone to someone here legally, either by birth or immigration. Does that make sense?

AT: You’re presenting the arguments correctly, but I’m not sure it makes sense….The way that the immigrant advocates have responded to that is the parents are the ones that broke the law. The children came here like any other child would do when their parents tell them to come….The ‘line issue’ is something that you can raise, in terms of getting in line and waiting your turn. You can impose that anywhere along the way.

(Click to enlarge the image.)

The reality check is that these are young people that came over here with their parents. They went to school here. They’ve educated in our schools. We’ve invested literally tens of thousands of dollars. We’ve educated them. They’re prepared to learn in our universities, and they want to. We’re not talking about the ones that drop out or the ones that don’t care…We’re talking about a very small number. I mean, we’re not talking hundreds of thousands of kids…

Prior to 9/11, there was a process. It wasn’t perfect, but there was a process. If an employer had a job, needed a worker, he could put an ad in the paper,…identify that they have a particular need….But after 9/11, you had a major challenge. We had a full court press by the anti-immigrant lobby, and they shut down everything…

BHT: Do you see that as something Virginia can do? Or is it only a federal issue?

AT: The federal government is the only one that has authority over immigrant issues.

BHT: But I mean, is there a role for Virginia to take an advocacy role for that policy idea?

AT: The answer would be an advocacy role, but obviously right now we’re getting just the opposite. You know, clamoring and trying to make local ordinances that would penalize folks who are undocumented, getting the police departments to play a greater role in immigration, as opposed to dealing with the crimes…The legislature kept killing legislation that would allow for undocumented immigrants not to be asked their immigration status, if they were victims or witnesses of crimes. That failed. That was a cruel, cruel set-back…

BHT: At the Arlington County Democratic Committee debate, you said a state law you’d like to see replicated here was Maryland’s driver’s license program. You see the idea that people, even undocumented people, should be allowed to get a driver’s license as a public safety issue, knowing that the people on the road have passed the tests and have insurance. How do you balance that with the greater Homeland Security-type public safety?

AT: I’m not sure exactly how they’re doing it in Maryland…That opportunity is being sunsetted, as far as I know…

There are people who may not be able to prove that they are here legally, so it would be a license that could be issued indicating that this is a license that the bearer will use for driving purposes only, and for no other purpose. There are ways…that you’d do it subtely, but yet everybody in any kind of official capacity would know…that this is only for driving purposes…

[You] would know who they are when you stop them as opposed to having no license at all. They would need to learn our laws and get a driver’s license. Then they could get insurance for their car. And they’d comply with all the rest of the laws. Mainly people are working, whether you say legitimately or not, and they need to travel and they will travel…

BHT: Well, that was about it. Is there anything I missed that you wanted to talk about?

AT: …I’m the chair of the Arlington County Crime Solvers. The reason I got involved in that is literally to find ways of reducing crime, especially reaching out to the immigrant community…and they want to provide a tip, that’s one way of doing it without getting involved.

I’m also on the chief-of-police advisory committee. We talk to him every couple of months….and I bring up issues that are happening in our community, concerns and suggestions. I’m very—I can’t say ‘pro-police’—I’m very pro-having-a-safe-environment, safe society….I know that the immigrant community, for the most part, is law-abiding…

Where I work at Shirlington…some of them [the clients of the center] have a very good work ethic. For the most part, most of them do. But the ones that are the problem, are the ones that get all the notoriety, and makes it harder on everybody else.

BHT: For us, in Buckingham, it’s public drunkenness and urination, and that kind of thing. You only have to see that once a week to be highly annoyed by it.

AT: In all candor, I also am the coordinator of another group that has started in October of last year that we call Arlington Service providers to the poor….We’re having a meeting actually on the 20th….The issue this time is going to be alcoholism in Arlington…We’ve united folks from all the “A”s—[community providers:] ASPAN, AFAC, you know, AMEN, plus Doorways and the county to get together and talk about these issues, dealing with the poor that are going to impact us probably even moreso in the next few years while we’re going through this change in economic climate…

The community and the churches and everybody has got to step up and say ‘Hey guys, this isn’t where you came from, where you could get away with [it]. Here, you will pay a price. You will be fined, and you will be jailed….If you’re going to drink, drink responsibly.’ That’s the message I want to send. Let’s bring some responsibility…

[Latinos] and the African-Americans, and the poor whites, they have lost hope. We’ve got to instill in them the fact that they can make it, and that there is an opportunity…I am probably in the one percent, if not less, that made it through high school and college and a master’s degree and of immigrant parents who were both illiterate…

The things that are going on in the immigrant community right now, with the immigrant-bashing…it’s devastating.

What I’m very critical of is supervisors in Prince William [County, not the just the chairman] but the other guy who said that he’s going to submit an ordinance that would eliminate any services whatsoever to undocumented immigrants. He watered it down, but it got tremendous press, including the Latino media. And one of the things I point out is that the immigrant community does not know that the local supervisor does not have the authority to overturn the [United States] Supreme Court that says that every child, irrespective of status, is going to get an education. They do not know that there is a federal mandate that hospitals are required to take anybody who is sick. They don’t know that. So, many of the kids, or the families of the kids, were keeping the kids at home. They thought that that ordinance had passed. That is not fair.

That’s part of what I want to do in Richmond…I want to go down there and make sure that we change a few things around this kind of way, on a one-to-one basis with a lot of folks.

The upbringing that I have, the reason I think I can be effective across the aisle, my background in terms of standing on our feet and doing it on our own has been bred in me from youth. My dad was a farm worker in west Texas. From November to late February, there was no work whatsoever. My dad would buy 100 pounds of flour and corn meal and beans and rice and coffee, and the only thing he would go to the store to buy is perishables. And so we never took a dime from anybody else. No welfare, no unemployment, nothing…

BHT: What neighborhood do you live in?

AT: I live in Filmore Garden Apartments in Penrose [neighborhood]….Let me point out something: I lived in the 47th 23 years, not consistently, but I owned a condominium, and six years ago, I was invited to consider running for the House of Delegates in the 49th, which would be south of Columbia Pike, and I moved to be south of Columbia Pike. I received the endorsement of every major Democrat in Arlington, including the incumbent Karen Darner. So I moved there. I stayed there.

Six months ago I moved across Columbia Pike. If I’m going to be nailed for crossing the street, I’ve got 23 years of living in the 47th which is more than one person…has lived, or equal to, his life. A lot more than some other people have…People who don’t want to vote for me for being a carpet-bagger, I’m sure they could find something else, find another reason.

Click here to return to the main interview site. --ST

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