States struggle to cut costs of immigration

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

With no resolution of immigration-reform legislation at the federal level, states have been pressing ahead with their own measures intended to discourage illegal immigration and curtail costs of providing services to that population.

Lawmakers in Kansas, Iowa, and Arizona have voted this year to restrict certain social services to illegal immigrants, following similar action last year in Virginia. Other states have passed legislation cracking down on employers of illegal immigrants and those who sell forged documents to illegals.

In all, state legislatures have seen some 500 immigration-reform bills introduced in 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL).

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But even as lawmakers try to make it harder for illegals to live in their states, they are bumping into one roadblock after another, rendering their efforts toothless and mostly symbolic. For one, states cannot sidestep federal law by simply denying certain services, such as public education and emergency healthcare, to undocumented people. For another, the courts often ruled against their immigration-control proposals.

"Mostly, [the measures] are just unsuccessful," says Josh Bernstein, director of federal policy at the National Immigration Law Center, an advocate for low-income immigrants. Mr. Bernstein, along with colleagues, has tracked many of the measures.

The latest setback came this week in Colorado, where the state's Supreme Court disallowed a ballot initiative that asked voters if they wanted to bar illegal immigrants in the state from receiving "nonemergency" social services. The judges on Monday ruled, 4 to 2, that the measure could not appear on the November ballot because it improperly mixed two subjects: services to immigrants and decreases in taxation.

The ruling touched off a firestorm of criticism from those who had hoped Colo- rado would be next to undertake a state-level immigration crackdown.

"This was an unprincipled, unjustified, and unfair decision. [The judges] took the matter away from the voters," says a disappointed Richard Lamm, a former Colorado governor, who spearheaded the three-year effort to qualify the measure for the ballot. "No one was as close as we were."

US Rep. Tom Tancredo (R) of Colorado, one of the country's most outspoken advocates of immigration reform, echoed Mr. Lamm, claiming that the decision was the product of "naked" partisan politics. "I would certainly impeach them," he said, referring to the judges.

Gov. Bill Owens (R) threatened to call a special session in the legislature to get the measure on the ballot unless the state Supreme Court reconsiders its ruling.

Others were pleased. Federico Peña, a former Denver mayor and head of Keep Colorado Safe, a group that opposed the initiative, hailed the decision as a victory for Colorado, calling the measure "mean-spirited." The judges, he said, simply beat Coloradoans to the punch, knocking down a measure that never should have been introduced in the first place.

In Colorado, in 2005, 70 percent of illegal immigrants did not have health insurance, according to the Center for Immigration Studies, a nonprofit research organization which advocates controlling immigration. In addition, 18 percent of households headed by illegal immigrants had someone in the household who used a major welfare program, including food assistance or Medicaid, the CIS reported.

State-level immigration reforms have had trouble from the beginning. In 1994, Californians passed Proposition 187, the first state ballot initiative to deny social services to illegal immigrants. The measure languished in the courts, costing the state a bundle in legal fees before a US District Court declared it unconstitutional in 1997 because it was considered too broad and trampled on federal jurisdiction.

The measures are typically motivated by frustration over inaction in Washington, but those who support them often expect no real results. "Many people who voted for 187 would agree with the statement that they just wanted to send a message to Congress," says Hans Johnson, a researcher with the Public Policy Institute of California in San Francisco.

Not everyone agrees that such legislation is a waste of time. Representative Tancredo says denying social services to illegals is an effective way to save taxpayer dollars and remove a possible incentive for illegal entry into the US. "It's one of the few things states can actually do to make a difference," he says.

Protect Washington Now is currently pushing a ballot initiative there similar to Colorado's. Bob Baker, who leads the group, calls the Colorado court decision "heart-breaking," but he continues to push forward. "I would love to let the feds take care of it. I would have a lot more free time on my hands," he says.

Still, there is little confidence by immigration experts that state activists can achieve the reforms they want to curb illegal immigration. The most they can do is "convey a real sense of public outrage and frustration," says Steven Camarota, director of research for the Center for Immigration Studies.

Mr. Baker says he believes a ballot initiative restricting social services in Washington State will help advance the group's agenda. "If nothing else, we've got people talking about the issue."

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