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States preempt US on immigration

Frustrated by federal inaction, state and local governments are passing laws at a record pace.

By Faye BowersStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 15, 2007


Federal efforts to tighten the border and deport illegal immigrants are so far insufficient to satisfy states and localities, which are proposing and passing laws at record rates to take matters into their own hands.

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With a proposal for comprehensive immigration reform now stalled in the US Senate, and its prospects for revival uncertain, the wave of immigration-related measures outside Washington is only likely to grow, as state and local governments balk at shouldering the economic, law-enforcement, and social costs they attribute to illegal immigrants.

Through mid-April, legislators in all 50 states had introduced a record 1,169 bills dealing with illegal immigrants – more than twice the number put forward in all of 2006. Eighteen states had enacted 57 of those bills as of April 19, two-thirds of the number of immigration laws adopted by states last year, according to a report by the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) in Washington.

"I would not be surprised to see an increase above this year's historic level [of state legislation] if there's no [federal] reform," says Sheri Steisel, an immigration policy expert at NCSL. "Clearly, in areas of employer documentation, education, and healthcare we'll see even more activity next year."

Cities take action, too

Cities, counties, and towns are grappling with illegal immigration as well.

"More than 90 cities or counties have proposed, passed, or rejected laws prohibiting landlords from leasing to illegal immigrants, penalizing businesses that employ undocumented workers, or training local police to enforce federal immigration laws," said Dennis Zine, a board member of the National League of Cities and the chair of its Immigration Task Force, in testimony before a US House Judiciary subcommittee in May.

Local governments, he said, have no control over the flow of immigration but are responsible for integrating immigrants into their communities. "While immigrants have strengthened our country and our communities in innumerable ways," Mr. Zine testified, "many communities are straining to find the right approach in such an unsettled environment over immigration and federal immigration policy."

The state and local bills run the gamut of immigration-related issues, though most are intended to make life more uncomfortable for people in the United States illegally.

They also raise some thorny issues for politicians wanting to take action. For instance, if Arizona decides to sanction employers in the state for hiring undocumented workers, will the companies targeted move to a state that doesn't have such an enforcement regimen?

Such a bill has already cleared Arizona's House of Representatives and is now being debated in the state Senate. Moreover, voters here in November approved four ballot initiatives targeting illegal immigrants. One denies in-state tuition rates to undocumented college students.

By April, 40 other states had introduced 199 bills related to employment of undocumented workers – the top subject of concern in the states. The next is law enforcement, then benefits and, closely behind, education, according to the NCSL.

Stresses in new places