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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.

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Yet the track record for recent immigration legislation suggests that explicitly anti-illegal immigration bills are more the exception than the rule. Some 71 percent of the state immigration laws passed from 2006 to 2010 were neutral toward undocumented immigrants. A small portion of these laws could actually be said to be tolerant of unauthorized immigrants, such as a 2006 Nebraska law granting in-state tuition to some unauthorized immigrants. (See graphic.)

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In a testament to the difficulty of passing tough laws, Arizona defeated a bill that would have denied citizenship to children who do not have at least one US citizen or permanent legal resident as a parent.

Moreover, by some measures, the farthest-reaching laws have had little impact. Arizona's SB 1070 has reportedly yielded no arrests, and enforcement of the portion of the law requiring police officers to check a person's immigration status is being delayed by a court challenge.

Oklahoma's HB 1804 was hailed by supporters as the toughest state immigration law in the US in 2007. It barred unauthorized immigrants from receiving state benefits and made transporting them a crime. After a year, the law had yielded three arrests and one conviction, the Associated Press reported.

But this is not to say that state and local policies have not had significant effects. When Prince William County in Virginia passed an SB 1070-style law in 2008, those embroiled in the debate say it became a very different place.

"It wasn't just that a law was passed. All of a sudden people felt threats of violence," says film producer Chris Rigopulos after a screening of "9500 Liberty," a documentary on the law.

In Arizona, an estimated 100,000 Hispanics left the state in the months after SB 1070 was enacted, according to a BBVA Bancomer Research study.

But according to Alicia Sandoval, who left Arizona for Ohio, this mass exodus was not just because of SB 1070. Ms. Sandoval, who came to the US from Mexico 10 years ago, says the law only formalized what had been going on for years. "When we first came to Arizona, there was no fear," Sandoval says through an interpreter. "The police wouldn't treat you bad, even if you didn't have any papers."

But that has changed. She points to the aggressive policies of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who helped deport 26,000 people from 2007 to 2010 – all before SB 1070.

Sandoval worked at a bakery in the heavily Hispanic Phoenix neighborhood and often saw lines of cars pulled over by police officers when she got off work at 1 a.m. She says police would find reasons, such as expired tags, to pull over people.

"We need some sort of education on how we can be integrated into the community, and not be separated from it," says Sandoval.

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