After Arizona, why are 10 states considering immigration bills?

The Arizona immigration law set off a national powder keg. But state lawmakers are not shying away from the issue – and some appear to be inspired by Arizona.

John Prieto/The Denver Post/AP
Colorado Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis, seen here speaking at a Feb. 15 news conference, has called for his state to launch a crackdown on illegal immigration similar to the one passed by Arizona.

Given the anger sparked by Arizona's immigration bill nationwide – including protests and calls to boycott Arizona – the campaign promises of Colorado gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis could be seen as a bit of a surprise.

He has vowed to follow Arizona's lead and pass a tough new anti-illegal immigration law. “We are stopping the retreat. No more retreat,” he said in a local radio interview. “Federal government, if you are not going to do it, we are going to do it.”

Mr. McInnis's comments are but one example of how the Arizona firestorm has hardly scared off politicians in other states around the country. In some cases, it might actually be encouraging them.

Oklahoma is looking at passing tougher penalties for illegal immigrants caught with firearms. South Carolina might make it illegal to hire workers on the side of the road. In addition, state immigration legislation is also being considered in Idaho, Utah, Missouri, Texas, North Carolina, Maryland, Minnesota, and Colorado.

In many cases, the potential legislation is merely part of the perpetual national debate about immigration, which has taken form in more than 200 state-level immigration bills being signed into law each year from 2007 to 2009, notes Catherine Wilson, a political scientist at Villanova University in Philadelphia.

But there could be at least a shade of political opportunism as well, says Steven Schier, a political scientist at Carleton College in Northfield, Minn.

“This all means that Republicans elsewhere see political advantage in pressing for Arizona-style laws,” he says.

Arizona law: A tipping point for states?

That would not be unprecedented. In 2004, Arizona approved Prop. 200, which barred illegal immigrants from receiving most nonessential state benefits and services. Many other states followed.

Anti-illegal immigration advocates argue that the new Arizona immigration law represented a tipping point that other states are now following.

“What we are witnessing around the country is that the public’s patience is wearing out with the federal government’s failure to enforce immigration laws and protect the interests of American workers and taxpayers,” says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR).

“Local officials – who tend to be more in-tune with the concerns of their constituents – are responding and doing what they can to address a serious problem for their states and communities,” he says.

But the movement among statehouses to enact immigration-related legislation began to take shape well before the Arizona law, says Professor Wilson.

She pinpoints 2006, and notes that the 200 immigration-related bills passed between 2007 and 2009 included 40 states and ranged in topic from law enforcement and employer verification to identification and licenses.

New levels of frustration

The public’s renewed focus on immigration issues, together with recent events like the high-profile killing of an Arizona rancher, are expected to increase the tide of legislation. Three national polls have shown wide support for Arizona's SB 1070 in particular and crackdowns on undocumented immigrants in general.

“We should expect this trend of state-level activity to accelerate this year in the absence of federal legislation on immigration," Wilson says.

President Obama’s tacit acknowledgment that immigration reform is not feasible in the short term and his recent quips at a White House correspondents' dinner – where he mocked the Arizona law – have fueled frustration, says Jack Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College.

Immigration activists have posted a video to YouTube that juxtaposes his comical remarks with statistics on soaring drug smuggling and narcotics prosecutions. The video includes the punch line: “President Obama, broken borders are not a laughing matter. Do your job and secure the border.”

“President Obama's mockery of the Arizona law has handed ammunition to its proponents,” says Professor Pitney, pointing out that the ad is paid for by Arizona’s Republican governor, Jan Brewer.


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