The Divided States Of America

States and municipalities are responding in wildly different ways to undocumented workers

Editor's Note: On Apr. 9, President George W. Bush spoke in Yuma (Ariz.) about the need for comprehensive immigration reform. This story, published before the speech, examines the strains for municipalities and businesses as Washington struggles to implement federal reform.

Gustavo Torres is a popular guy these days. As he walks into the storefront worker center he runs, the Hispanic men and women who fill the waiting room wave and call out "buenos días." Torres' nonprofit has been hired by Montgomery County, Md., to provide employment services to these immigrants, about 60% of whom are in the country illegally.

The county pays Torres' group, casa of Maryland Inc., about $700,000 a year to provide hiring halls, English language classes, and legal help in employment disputes. What's more, the county doesn't care what the federal government thinks of its welcoming attitude. "The local government says they are not going to cooperate with [U.S.] Immigration & Customs Enforcement," says Torres.

It's a different world just three hours away in Hazelton, Pa. The local government there is trying to push through ordinances meant to drive illegal immigrants out of town and punish employers who hire them. "Illegal immigration is destroying the quality of life," says Hazelton Mayor Louis J. Barletta.

This stark contrast is repeated again and again across the country, confounding businesses with local rules designed to deal with an undocumented population estimated at 12 million nationwide. The federal government's often haphazard enforcement of immigration laws and the absence of a comprehensive immigration policy only adds to the confusion. "This is like a Bermuda Triangle," says Di Ann Sanchez, vice-president of human resources at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in Texas.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, more than 80 immigration-related laws were enacted in 32 states in 2006; most of those measures were attempts to crack down on illegal immigrants. Wyoming, for example, enacted a law in 2005 that changed the state's definition of "employee" to mean someone an employer believes to be a citizen or permanent resident at the date of hire. That same year, Kentucky passed a law requiring proof of citizenship to obtain certain professional licenses. In Georgia a 2006 law forces employers to accept only identification from states that don't issue ids to illegal immigrants, a law that clashes with the federal mandate that employers accept driver's licenses from all 50 states as valid ID. "Which law do you obey?" says Bob Thomas, executive director of the Roofing & Sheet Metal Contractors Association of Georgia.


Other areas are welcoming immigrants. New Haven, for one, plans to offer a city identification card that undocumented workers may use to access city services. And in addition to the one in Montgomery County, Md., there are 62 sanctioned day-labor centers in 17 states, according to a 2006 study.

Hazelton, Pa., took a different approach last summer when its mayor pushed ordinances intended to crack down on illegal immigration. The city was sued last August by the American Civil Liberties Union and a coalition of local residents and business owners who argued that the city was trampling on the federal government's domain over immigration. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce sided with the aclu. A judge blocked enforcement of the ordinances while the case is under way.

Meanwhile, many businesses still hold out hope that the new Congress can pass an immigration bill that includes a guest worker program and a path to citizenship for some illegal immigrants. But the politics of the 2008 Presidential campaign will make that difficult, business and political leaders say. If Congress can't pass a bill by the fall, before the campaign begins in earnest, changes likely won't come until 2009.

By Eamon Javers

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