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Protecting illegal immigrants, state by state

The failure of Congress and recent presidents to overhaul the immigration system led Arizona and other states to devise their own crackdowns on illegal immigrants. Now, immigrant rights groups are pursuing their own drives, state by state and in varied ways, to protect illegal immigrants.

Connecticut and Maryland have passed laws to charge lower in-state college tuition rates to students who are illegal immigrants. Utah has created identification cards for illegal immigrant “guest workers” and their families. New California laws will offer college financial aid to illegal immigrants and ensure that their cars are not seized if they are caught at traffic stops without driver’s licenses — which they cannot legally obtain.

Most recently, a bipartisan group in California has drafted a November 2012 state ballot measure aimed at allowing hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants to come forward and pay income taxes without fear of deportation. It would also attempt to spare their employers from prosecution.

Organizers of the California ballot measure campaign were inspired largely by conservatives’ success in pushing the tough enforcement measures in Arizona, Alabama and Georgia, where, among other steps, police were authorized to check immigration papers. Alabama’s law requires public schools to check children’s immigration status.

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“Well, it’s good for the goose, it’s good for the gander,” said Antonio Gonzalez, a Latino civil rights advocate who helped form the coalition sponsoring the California initiative.

Frank Sharry, the founder of America’s Voice, a group that supports the sort of comprehensive reform that has eluded Presidents Obama and George W. Bush, said Washington’s dysfunction was likely to “keep the immigration system mired in the status quo for a number of years.”

“If that’s true, then it’s not only the states that want to pass anti-immigrant legislation that are going to fill that vacuum, it’s also the states that want to pass pro-immigrant legislation,” said Sharry, who is not involved in the new proposal.

The clash between states taking varying approaches to immigration comes as the Republican Party is roiled by tension over the issue in its presidential nomination race.

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Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney has made immigration a centerpiece of his appeals to conservatives, with a tougher approach that touts his support for a border fence and his veto of in-state tuition benefits for illegal immigrants.

Texas Gov. Rick Perry was hammered by rivals for saying that critics of tuition assistance for illegal immigrant students were heartless; he has been scrambling ever since to regain favor with conservatives.

Newt Gingrich, the former House speaker, has faced attacks — so far, to no avail — for supporting steps to legalize the status of undocumented immigrants who have lived for many years in the United States and have not committed crimes.

The differing reactions suggest that at least some Republicans were more upset at Perry’s personal rebuke than his policies. Indeed, recent polls suggest that Republicans overall hold relatively moderate views on immigration. A Pew Research Center poll last month found that 41% of Republicans thought that the priority for dealing with illegal immigration should be both border security and creating a path to citizenship, only slightly below the 45% of Democrats who favored such a combined approach.

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In California, backers of the initiative say they will target not just Democrats and independents but also Republicans, in part by arguing that illegal immigrants who are thoroughly integrated into California society should be encouraged to pay taxes, providing the state with desperately needed cash.

“I think we’re past the point in California history where anybody really believes that we’re going to round up 3 million people and deport them on buses and trains,” said Mike Madrid, the Republican who is managing the campaign.

The measure is sponsored by Assemblyman Felipe Fuentes (D-Sylmar) and John Cruz, a Republican who was appointments secretary to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger. To get it on the ballot, proponents must collect 504,760 voter signatures.

The measure’s legal strength is uncertain. It would set up a five-year pilot program for immigrants who lack legal papers to live or work in the United States. To qualify, immigrants must have no felony convictions and cannot be on welfare. They must file state tax returns and learn English, if they do not speak it already.

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The initiative would require California’s governor to ask the president not to spend federal resources to catch or deport those enrolled in the program, and not to prosecute their employers.

But there would be no guarantee that the president would direct federal authorities to cooperate. Kathleen Walker, a former president of the American Immigration Lawyers Assn., said the risk of deportation could deter many immigrants from joining the program.

“That’s just a real walking-into-a-fire kind of option,” she said.

The campaign to pass the initiative would also face vigorous opposition, at minimum from talk radio hosts who regularly take on illegal immigration.

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“We’d be saying it’s OK to sneak over here and be illegal, and we’ll help you get a job, and you’re going to pay taxes, you don’t have to wait in line,” said Richard Mountjoy, author of Proposition 187, the 1994 ballot measure that sought to ban public services for illegal immigrants. “I think that’s outrageous.”

Although Proposition 187 passed before being largely voided in court, it also ignited a surge in Latino voting that has helped to marginalize the Republican Party in California.

Supporters of the new immigration measure see it as a parallel to the 1996 ballot measure that legalized medical marijuana in California in defiance of federal drug laws — and as a model for laws that other states can adopt.

“The way America changes is through the states,” Gonzalez said. “That’s really the beauty of states’ rights, stripped of its deservedly evil connotation from the Jim Crow era.”

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Bill Wright, a Republican who sponsored Utah’s guest worker law in the state’s House of Representatives, said states that disagreed with the approach taken by Arizona and Alabama had little choice but to take matters into their own hands, given the inaction of lawmakers in Washington.

“They don’t have much ability to do anything back there right now,” he said, “and they’ll be quite frank in telling you it’s not going to happen.”

michael.finnegan@latimes.com


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