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?

David Goldman/AP
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.

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.

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.


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.

"There is some party politics, some short-term electoral gains at hand, but by and large it has to do with the fact that [people] are a lot more receptive to anti-immigrant laws in places where they're not used to immigrants – and the opposite in places where they're used to having immigrants and where people understand the value proposition" behind welcoming immigrants, says Allert Brown-Gort, associate director of the Institute for Latino Studies at the University of Notre Dame in South Bend, Ind.

That divergence is already having a tangible impact on immigrant families, farmers, and businesses in places like Arizona and Georgia, where crackdowns – despite the legal challenges pending against the new laws – are causing immigrants to take their muscle and spending dollars elsewhere.

Just as 100,000 undocumented immigrants reportedly left Arizona last year, an exodus from Georgia has also begun. Farmers are struggling to get fruits and vegetables out of their patches, and stores in Hispanic neighborhoods are seeing sales slide.

In north DeKalb County near Atlanta, an area where 74 percent of residents are Hispanic noncitizens, bus depots are seeing brisk business as undocumented workers prepare to leave ahead of July 1, when the Georgia law takes effect. Media reports suggest some are heading back to Central and South America, but others are getting on buses heading for New York.

"They're the most flexible part of the workforce. They'll go wherever there's work," says Wendy Sefsaf, communications director for the American Immigration Council in Washington, which supports humane enforcement of immigration law.

On the other hand, the law is achieving the desired effect, supporters say. Short-term upheaval in the labor market will be offset by the easing of pressure on schools, jails, and social services, they argue.

Meanwhile, politicians in states that are refusing to work with Secure Communities are facing different, but equally serious, political challenges.

The program could potentially have stopped at least one murder in Massachusetts, claims the Center for Immigration Studies, citing a recent case in the Bay State in which a foreign national using several aliases to avoid police fled the US back to Guatemala before he could be apprehended.

Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick (D) has rejected this line of thinking. "We will give up more than we get" with Secure Communities, Mr. Patrick said recently. "We run a serious risk of ethnic profiling and, frankly, fracturing incredibly important relationships in communities that are important for law enforcement."

Forty-two states are involved in the program, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has recently sought to clear up confusion by saying participation is not voluntary. It will try to force states like Massachusetts to comply. But growing concern about Secure Communities' impact on people charged with minor crimes or who have no rap sheets whatsoever is driving opposition.

In 2009, the US deported a record 387,790 people, partly because of Secure Communities. Significantly, in California – which has America's largest immigrant population – a bill to opt out of the program passed a Senate committee in mid-June. The Assembly has already passed the bill.

Part of the reason for the hesitation among some states is an ongoing investigation into Secure Communities by the DHS Office of Inspector General, says Ms. Sefsaf. That's "why a few governors are now saying, 'Excuse me, I don't think I'm going to engage in this program until I understand it and you guys justify what you're doing,' " she says. "You're supposed to be deporting bad guy criminals, and we're finding out you're deporting busboys and nannies."

A looming showdown over Secure Communities between the White House and key Obama allies like Patrick threatens to shake key coalitions within the Democratic Party. Hispanic groups are growing frustrated with President Obama's unfulfilled promises of more comprehensive federal immigration reform.

They are pressuring the Obama administration to use the president's power of prosecutorial discretion to help keep undocumented families together and allow young people who have spent most of their lives in the US to remain.

"When immigration policy starts getting devolved into states and localities ... you have push and pull factors from different directions. That leads to noncohesive, fragmented, and confusing policy with strong impacts on local economics and on the lives of immigrants," says Muzaffar Chishti, an immigration policy expert at the New York University School of Law. "For a country that believes in national cohesion, to have fragmented immigration policy does not work. These developments ... have proven that."

Meanwhile, businesses are also speaking out against tough anti-illegal-immigration laws. Arizona, Georgia, and Alabama, for instance, demand that employers use E-Verify, a tool to check that workers are in the country legally. Businesses in those states now feel they are at a competitive disadvantage, as illegal-immigrant workers flee for other states.

Says Sefsaf: "From 10,000 feet, we're now seeing a crazy patchwork of laws in different states – it's getting to be very perplexing."


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