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America's red-blue divide widens on illegal immigrants

The recent actions of Alabama and New York highlight how red states and blue states are heading in exactly opposite directions on laws about illegal immigrants. In this atmosphere, is federal immigration reform possible?

By Staff writer / June 20, 2011

Fieldworkers pick Vidalia onions on a farm in Lyons, Ga. The state is among a handful demanding that employers use a Webbased tool to verify that workers are legal.

David Goldman/AP

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ATLANTA

America's red and blue states are increasingly going in exactly opposite directions on the issue of illegal immigration – a testament to how difficult finding middle ground has become on the federal level.

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Earlier this month, Alabama followed Georgia and, most famously, Arizona in passing sweeping anti-illegal-immigration legislation. In many respects, Alabama's is the most comprehensive bill of the three, forcing schools to report how much they're spending to educate kids of illegal immigrants, for example.

That same week, however, New York State followed the lead of Illinois and opted out of the federal Secure Communities program, which is designed to identify and deport illegal immigrants in US jails who are convicted of certain felonies. They have criticized the program as casting too broad a net, deporting even "busboys and nannies." Several days later, Massachusetts also opted out, and California could be next.

RELATED: 'SILENT RAIDS' AND E-VERIFY IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT ARE DESTROYING US FARMS

As Washington has punted on federal immigration reform, states have become the laboratories to test new approaches. The picture that is emerging, though, is one of a nation divided against itself on the issue.

In the broadest terms, states with a long history of assimilating foreign-born migrants are largely defending the ideal of the United States as a "nation of immigrants," legal or illegal. Meanwhile, states that have before been largely isolated from immigration patterns are now taking a "the law is the law" approach.

The result is a pattern that roughly fits the red-blue divide with the South and inner West opposed by the Northeast and West Coast. But the patchwork of immigration policy could have a silver lining: As states struggle with the issue, their efforts could provide starting points for more meaningful federal reform.

"In the very short run, it is a good thing for states and lawmakers to go on record about where they are on immigration policy – from both sides – because it clarifies what steps need to be taken at the federal level to achieve higher standards of immigration law enforcement and compliance," says Jessica Vaughan, policy director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates stronger immigration enforcement.

The regional immigration divide is in large part based on dramatic shifts in migration patterns, boosted by America's troubles in controlling its southern border. Outside of the so-called Big Six immigration states – California, New York, Illinois, Florida, Texas, and New Jersey – the immigrant population has increased 200 percent during the past 15 years. In seven states, more than half of those immigrants are undocumented. In another 17, about 40 percent are undocumented.

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