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On immigration, momentum shifts away from Arizona

A year ago, a revolution on immigration enforcement seemed underway, with legislators in at least 20 states vowing to follow the lead of Arizona’s tough new law targeting illegal immigrants.

These days, the momentum has shifted.

In at least six states, the proposals have been voted down or have simply died. Many of the other proposals have not even made it past one legislative chamber.

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The most-discussed provision in the Arizona law requires police to investigate the status of people they legally stop whom they also suspect are illegal immigrants.

But even in Arizona, several tough immigration proposals have been stalled in the Senate, with business leaders and some Republicans arguing that the state does not need more controversy.

The one state whose Legislature has passed an Arizona-style law, Utah, only approved a diluted bill accompanied by another measure that goes in a dramatically different direction.

The Utah Legislature on Friday voted to create ID cards for “guest workers” and their families, provided they pay a fine and don’t commit serious crimes. Immigrants who entered the country illegally would be fined up to $2,500. Immigrants who entered the country legally but were not complying with federal immigration law would be fined $1,000.

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“Why not put something in place where, in five years, we can say we did something, rather than sending a few people home?” said state Rep. Bill Wright, who wrote the law. “Sending a few people home will not solve our problems.”

Utah’s measure is essentially a state version of the comprehensive immigration reform that many backers of the Arizona approach deride as amnesty.

Muzaffar Chishti of the Migration Policy Institute said the momentum behind Arizona’s law was similar to the motivations driving Republican campaigns during the 2010 election and a bevy of new “tea party"-backed legislators eager to make their mark.

“There was a strong newcomer’s enthusiasm for this,” Chishti said. “Now I think reality has set in.”

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The main factor behind the retreat is skittishness about costs, said Ann Morse, who tracks immigration legislation for the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Arizona was sued by the Obama administration, which secured an injunction against most of the law. That ruling is under appeal and expected to reach the Supreme Court, costing millions in legal fees. Arizona was also hit by boycotts and canceled conventions.

“Most states are looking at where to cut money, not where to spend money,” Morse said.

There’s still time for the dynamic to change. Laws partly modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070 have made their way out of one of the two chambers in legislatures in Indiana, Kentucky and Georgia.

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But the situation in Georgia symbolizes why it has been difficult to pass Arizona-style laws. Gov. Nathan Deal, a Republican, campaigned on bringing such legislation to Georgia, but allies accuse him of equivocating because he hasn’t vowed to sign the proposal that passed the state House of Representatives on Thursday.

Mark Krikorian of the Center for Immigration Studies in Washington said it’s not surprising that efforts to replicate SB 1070 face uphill battles. Such laws spark fierce opposition from businesses, police and immigration advocates.

The issue gained traction in Arizona, Krikorian said, because illegal immigration was viewed as such a serious problem there. But elsewhere, “there’s no business with full-time employees trying to get immigration laws enforced. In fact, the opposite is true.”

“Any progress at all surprises me,” he added.

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In Nebraska, state Sen. Charlie Janssen’s SB 1070-style bill is stuck in the Legislature’s judiciary committee, where he says six of the eight members are cool to the idea.

“When you talk to Main Street, Nebraska, they say, ‘Go do it,’” Janssen said. “But when you get down here, the advocacy groups get to all the individual senators.”

In Florida, a measure modeled on SB 1070 is unlikely to pass, but the Republican-controlled Legislature will still consider requiring that all people booked into jail be checked for immigration violations.

“What’s encouraging is they’re backing away from the blatant anti-immigrant sentiment in Arizona,” said Subhash Kateel of the Florida Immigration Coalition. “But there’s politicians who campaigned on doing Arizona-style stuff, and now they have to do something.”

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In Arizona itself, SB 1070 helped propel Republicans to record margins in both chambers of the Legislature and to a clean sweep of statewide elected offices during the November election. Polls show the measure is very popular in the state and nationwide.

But its author, Senate President Russell Pearce, has been unable to replicate the measure’s smooth passage with the latest batch of immigration laws. He did not respond to requests for comment.

Proposals to require that hospitals check patients’ immigration status, that teachers and social workers refer suspected illegal immigrants to the federal government and that U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants be denied citizenship have all squeaked through state Senate committees. They have yet to face a vote in the full Senate. It’s possible the measures will ultimately pass, but many political observers in the state are surprised there has been Republican opposition to them.

“We have other more important issues and this distracts us from them,” said Sen. John McComish, a Republican who voted for SB 1070.

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The biggest shift in dynamics is in Utah, where, the day SB 1070 was signed last year, a legislator vowed to bring the same law to the Beehive State. In response, business and community groups issued a statement of principles known as the Utah Compact to fight the measure. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which is growing rapidly overseas and in immigrant communities in the United States, endorsed the compact.

When the Utah Legislature acted on immigration last week, it moved in contradictory directions, trying to satisfy activists who want a tough approach to illegal immigration and business and religious leaders who urge flexibility and compassion for working families.

The Legislature weakened the Arizona-style law, which would now only require immigration checks of people arrested for felonies and serious misdemeanors. Still, the measure easily passed both houses. The guest-worker ID program also won easy approval.

The guest-worker bill depends on a federal waiver, and there are many who are skeptical the federal government would grant it. “It sends a bad message, that Utah wants its own amnesty program,” said Ronald Mortensen, a Utah-based activist against illegal immigration. “I think there’s going to be a lot of upset people.”

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Critics call Utah’s guest-worker effort an unconstitutional attempt to create a state-level immigration policy just to send a message to a deadlocked Washington. That was also a central criticism of Arizona’s law.

On Friday, as the heavily conservative state Senate debated the issue, senator after senator said the measure was a needed warning for a Washington they see as out of touch on taxes and regulation. State Sen. Howard Stephenson compared the move to the opening shots of the Revolutionary War.

“We are in a sense firing a shot and saying we are going to do it right,” Stephenson said, “and set a pattern for Congress and the rest of the nation to follow.”

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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