Arizona’s get-tough approach to illegal immigration has sparked court challenges likely to take years to resolve. Randy Terrill, a Republican state lawmaker from Oklahoma, won’t be waiting to see what judges decide.
Terrill is among dozens of state legislators across the U.S. drafting measures that match or go further than the Arizona law, which requires police to check the immigration status of people stopped for questioning. He’s readying legislation to allow Oklahoma authorities to seize and keep the vehicle of anyone found to be harboring an illegal immigrant who is a passenger, regardless of whether smuggling is suspected. The measure would categorize undocumented immigrants as “human contraband.”
Elsewhere, Missouri and Mississippi are among states where lawmakers intend to offer bills similar to Arizona’s “probable cause” law. And legislators in several states want to require employers to verify the immigration status of workers.
The state-by-state efforts underscore the federal gridlock on immigration policy. “States are stepping in where the federal government can’t or won’t act,” said Terrill.
About 300 immigration-related bills were introduced in statehouses in 2005, said Ann Morse, who directs the Immigrant Policy Project for the National Conference of State Legislatures. In each of the last two years, the figure reached about 1,500, she said.
In 2011, state legislators could push the number higher. “Every indication I get is, they’re not done,” Morse said.
Republican gains in state legislatures will drive some of the proposals. In November’s elections, the party won enough seats to take control of 20 additional statehouse chambers. With these pickups, Republicans now control the legislative branch in 25 states, up from 14, according to the Denver, Colorado-based NCSL.
In some states, newly-elected Republican governors want to press ahead with more stringent immigration laws. Governor-elect Nikki Haley of South Carolina said she wants to sign into law a measure like Arizona’s next year. She also wants to boost state funding for immigration enforcement and press for increased deportation of illegal immigrants within her state’s borders.
In other states, Democratic chief executives may find themselves at odds with Republican-controlled legislatures over immigration policy. Governor Jay Nixon of Missouri and Governor-elect John Hickenlooper of Colorado have said they oppose an Arizona-type “probable cause” law that some Republican legislators in their states have suggested they might propose.
Behind the push at the state level is the inaction in Washington. The last broad rewrite of federal immigration policy was in 1986. In 2007, an effort by Republican President George W. Bush for a comprehensive revision collapsed, with Republican lawmakers and some Democrats calling for increased security at the U.S.-Mexico border before Congress should tackle the status of undocumented workers.
The Department of Homeland Security estimates that the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. declined to 10.8 million in January 2009, the latest figure available, from 11.6 million in January 2008.
President Barack Obama has yet to propose a restructuring of immigration policy. A piecemeal approach tried by congressional Democrats failed on Dec. 19 when the Senate thwarted a bill, the so-called DREAM Act, to allow legal status for some illegal immigrants attending college or in the U.S. military.
The bill was blocked by Senate Republicans and a handful of Democrats. And with Republicans taking control of the House in January, chances for changes to immigration law beyond tougher enforcement measures will drop significantly.
The Arizona law serving as a template for lawmakers in other states faces a challenge from the Obama administration, which argues that the statute unconstitutionally veers into matters of federal jurisdiction. A federal judge has issued a stay on enforcement of parts of the law.
States where the “probable cause” measure could pass next year include South Carolina, Florida, Mississippi and Georgia, said Tamar Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, a network of business groups that favors more legal immigration.
“Those are states where I see legislators that have a track record for doing this type of thing, who are making serious preparations and where the political landscape looks plausible,” Jacoby said.
In Texas, one legislator in November camped out for two days outside the House chamber so she could be first in line to file an Arizona-like measure.
The U.S. Supreme Court this month heard arguments in a challenge to another Arizona law that revokes the corporate charters of companies that hire illegal immigrants. The 2007 law also requires employers to participate in E-Verify, a system designed to confirm worker eligibility for employment through federal databases. The system is voluntary under federal law after the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business lobby, questioned its accuracy and said errors may force companies to fire legal immigrants.
Mississippi and South Carolina have joined Arizona in approving a mandatory-use law for all employers. States that could join them in 2011 include Georgia, Virginia and Texas, said Van Esser, chief of membership services at NumbersUSA, which supports tougher enforcement measures.
Many of the efforts are getting help from a central source, the Immigration Reform Law Institute. At the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a group that wants to crack down on illegal immigration, the institute’s attorneys are drafting measures.
“I’ve been personally approached by lawmakers from all over the country,” said Kris Kobach, a counsel for the group who helped to draft Arizona’s “probable cause” law.
Combating their efforts are groups like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Police Foundation, an association that says police departments will be overburdened if they take on the responsibility for enforcing immigration laws.
On another front, lawmakers in at least a dozen states working with a new group called State Legislators for Legal Immigration will introduce bills to try to push into the courts the issue of automatic U.S citizenship rights for children born in this country of illegal-immigrant parents. That right is afforded under the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment.
Past efforts to take on birthright citizenship have failed. Still, the measures send a message about dissatisfaction with lack of federal action on immigration, said Morse.
Some states want to advance legislation that denies children of illegal immigrants access to state benefits. The measures may also require them to have different birth certificates that identify their parents as undocumented immigrants.
“We shouldn’t be granting citizenship” to children of “someone who has entered our country illegally,” said state Representative Daryl Metcalfe of Pennsylvania, who leads State Legislators for Legal Immigration.
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