Frustrated by congressional inaction and pushed by rising anger at home, legislatures across the country are debating a variety of tough new restrictions on illegal immigrants.
For years, states deferred to the federal government on immigration matters, but as illegal immigrants have spread throughout the country and Congress has been unable to pass an immigration reform bill, that has changed.
In the first six months of last year, states considered about 300 immigration-related bills and passed 36 of them, the National Conference of State Legislatures said.
Florida allowed state law officers to arrest illegal immigrants. Arizona barred day-laborer centers from receiving public funds. Virginia denied some state benefits to undocumented workers.
This year, the proposals include cutting off benefits to illegal immigrants, allowing local police to identify those in the country illegally and, in Arizona, sending National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border.
“You can say it’s a federal problem all you want, but the truth is it’s in your backyard so the problem’s yours,” said Susan Tully of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce illegal immigration.
President Bush last year called for beefing up border security and a guest-worker program to allow migrants to work legally in the U.S. But the proposal stalled in Congress, and states said they were forced to act to control illegal immigration.
Traditionally, illegal immigrants have settled in border states such as California and Texas or in metropolitan centers such as New York.
But since 1990, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of illegal immigrants living outside these areas. States far from the Mexican border, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire, began fielding complaints about the proliferation of Spanish-language signs and increased burdens on public hospitals and schools.
“There’s a cultural shift that people are sensing in their guts,” said Colorado state Rep. David Schultheis, a Republican.
Immigrant advocates say fear of that cultural shift is leading to bad public policies.
“What is new is the extent of immigration, some of it legal, some of it not, in new communities across the country,” said John Trasvina of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. “They don’t know how to deal with it so they freak out and pass laws.”
Indeed, some states are striving to develop a reputation for being tough on illegal immigrants in hopes of discouraging any more from settling.
“While we’re not a border state, I thought it proper to make sure we don’t find ourselves in the same situation as California, Arizona and New Mexico 10 years from now,” said Georgia state Sen. Chip Rogers, a Republican who is backing a bill that would deny state services to undocumented workers.
Opponents of illegal immigration hope the recent wave of legislation represents a change in the way the country deals with immigration, a transformation they had hoped for 12 years ago when California voters passed Proposition 187 to end benefits for undocumented workers. That initiative was overturned in the courts and the anticipated onslaught of immigration restrictions fizzled.
In California, the Legislature will consider, for the seventh time, a proposal to grant drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. It will also consider a bill to have the California National Guard come up with a plan to secure the border.
Those who have spent years crusading against illegal immigration are pleased with the stepped-up activity.
“People who have never been engaged in this issue are engaged this year,” said Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce. The Republican legislator has proposed installing, at state expense, a $50-million radar system along his state’s border with Mexico to identify immigrants crossing the desert into the U.S.
Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who in 2004 opposed a ballot initiative to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants in Arizona, last summer declared a state of emergency along her state’s border, the busiest crossing for migrants. Last week she unveiled a $100-million proposal that includes posting National Guard troops along the border, toughening penalties for fraudulent identification papers and punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Though the legislative season is young and state representatives and senators are refining their proposals, certain trends have emerged. A few proposals are friendly to illegal immigrants, such as a Massachusetts bill to extend in-state college tuition to them. But most are crystallizing around three categories: denying benefits, allowing local police to arrest people for being in the country illegally, and increasing fines on employers who hire undocumented workers.
Those fighting illegal immigration contend that taxpayers shouldn’t support people in the state illegally, and that local police should be able to detain and arrest them. (Local police usually defer to federal authorities because they don’t want to alienate immigrant communities.) They also argue that the federal government has been lax in going after companies that hire illegal immigrants to avoid paying higher wages to legal residents.
Some advocacy groups argue that the anti-immigrant legislation is tinged with racism and largely for show. They note that many state proposals never pass the Legislature; those that pass often get vetoed or overturned by the courts for intruding into federal law.
“These bills are introduced, oftentimes, as messages to congressional members to act on immigration,” said Flavia Jimenez, an analyst at the National Council of La Raza in Washington. Jimenez said many of the legislators “know the bills will not go anywhere.”
Last year, 75 bills aimed at denying services to illegal immigrants were defeated in various state legislatures, and only a handful became law, according to an analysis by the National Immigrant Law Center in Los Angeles. Marielena Hincapie, director of programs at the center, said she expected a similar dynamic this year.
She noted that such legislation, even if defeated, could benefit their authors this fall: “I’m sure the bills that will be introduced this year will be used prominently in the elections.”
In Minnesota, Democrats have accused Republican Gov. Tim Pawlenty, who is up for reelection, of playing politics with illegal immigration. Pawlenty commissioned a study last year that found illegal immigration cost the state $180 million annually. He is proposing a state team to work with the federal government to deport illegal immigrants, as well as tougher penalties for false identification.
Pawlenty has been crisscrossing Minnesota to drum up support for his proposals. He said he was not trying to politicize the issue, adding that he had pushed anti-illegal immigrant measures since taking office in 2002.
“You have to be living under a rock to not see and feel and hear growing concerns about illegal immigration,” he said. “If the public is concerned about something, and we’re public officials, responding to a public concern is our responsibility.”
Though most recent hard-line proposals have come from Republicans, the issue isn’t always defined by party affiliation. Last year, the Democrats who control Colorado’s Legislature blocked Republican bills to deny benefits to illegal immigrants. This year Republicans are proposing several other anti-illegal immigrant bills that face stiff opposition. Meanwhile, former Gov. Richard Lamm, a Democrat, is backing a ballot initiative that would deny benefits to undocumented workers.
In Oklahoma, Republican legislators also want to bar illegal immigrants from receiving state benefits or medical care. Tom Adelson, Democratic chairman of the state Senate’s healthcare committee, has vowed to fight the effort. But he has his own proposal to fine employers of illegal immigrants and revoke their state charter, which would take away their right to defend themselves in court.
Adelson said that he would not tolerate women and children being shut out of medical care, but that something had to be done to stop the erosion of good jobs in his state.
“Let’s not go after the people who came here to improve their way of life,” Adelson said. “Let’s go after the companies that are importing masses of disenfranchised people” to avoid paying higher wages.
Some states are considering novel legal tactics.
In New Hampshire, which has one of the smallest Latino populations in the country, two sheriffs last year began arresting illegal immigrants, reasoning that their presence violated state laws against criminal trespass. Immigrant rights groups sued and had the prosecution invalidated. In response to that ruling, Republican legislators are pushing a bill that would enable the state to invoke trespass laws against illegal immigrants, and states such as South Carolina have inquired about the approach.
Trasvina, of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which sued to block the New Hampshire trespass effort and is fighting many of the new proposals across the country, said many were misguided piecemeal approaches to a national problem that could only be fixed by Congress.
“We can try to put out all these fires in all these local communities,” he said, “but if Congress and the president step forward and introduce some comprehensive reform, that’ll deal with it all at once.”
Times staff writer Robert Salladay in Sacramento contributed to this report.