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State illegal immigration laws: What have they accomplished?

Five years into a legislative surge, state illegal immigration laws have yielded few arrests. But they have stirred a populist backlash, say immigrant rights groups.

By Aaron CouchContributor / March 23, 2011

A Georgia resident wears support for a bill against illegal immigration.

John Amis/AP

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The wave of immigration laws that has swept through states since 2006 shows few signs of letting up, with state legislators expected to introduce about 1,400 bills this year. Yet five years into this legislative surge, the toughest laws have not recast immigration in the ways that legislators might have intended.

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From an enforcement standpoint, the impact of state anti-immigration laws like Arizona's controversial SB 1070 "is almost negligible," says Veronica Dahlberg, an immigrants' rights activist.

The far greater impact has been social, Hispanic groups say. Laws targeting illegal immigrants have reflected and even intensified the rising anti-immigration movement, both in statehouses and on the streets. The result is a legislative record from Arizona to Florida that hasn't made much of a mark on illegal immigration, but has fueled a populist backlash against it.

This is "particularly true in some places, because there's been very rapid growth in immigrant populations," says Marc Rosenblum, a senior analyst at the Migration Policy Institute.

The trend was sparked by a dramatic uptick in illegal immigration in the decade before 2006. Roughly half of all unauthorized immigrants now in the country – some 6 million in all – came to the United States during that period.

The response from state legislatures built rapidly. In 2006, they passed twice as many immigration laws as they had a year earlier. By 2008, they passed five times the 2005 number – a level that has stayed steady since. Last year, state legislators introduced about 1,400 immigration-related bills, more than 200 of which became laws.

The majority of these laws have been neutral on illegal immigration. But some of the most noteworthy have taken a tough stance, and more of the same is expected this year:

•About a dozen states are now considering bills like Arizona's SB 1070, which requires police officers to check a person's immigration status during routine stops.

•On March 16, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert (R) signed four immigration bills, which would, among other things, allow undocumented immigrants to work in the state and allow police to check the immigration status of people arrested for serious crimes. The bills were seen as an attempt to find a middle ground in the immigration debate.

•The Virginia legislature is considering an effort to ban unauthorized immigrants from enrolling in public universities.

•A Florida bill would require anyone employed in the state be run though E-Verify, a federal citizenship and immigration registry. Currently, all federal employees and contractors must be run through E-Verify, but applying this to all workers in a state would be a first.

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