Stateline Story

Immigration Bedevils State Lawmakers

In August, Democratic Govs. Janet Napolitano of Arizona and Bill Richardson of New Mexico declared a state of emergency. Smuggling and illegal immigration had reached a crisis along the Mexican border, and they needed millions of extra dollars to deal with the problems

It was an uncommon show of solidarity on immigration policy. Before their collective cry for help, these neighboring states had been swerving apart.

In the past few months, Arizona has adopted the nation's toughest laws against those living here illegally, barring benefits to illegal immigrants and denying public funding to migrant work centers. Meanwhile, New Mexico became the ninth state to offer lower, in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants, even making them eligible for scholarships.

What drove these states together was frustration at lack of a coherent federal policy on immigration.

Inundated by millions of illegal newcomers, states in the Southwest and beyond are taking more immigration matters into their own hands. While immigration is considered a federal issue, at the moment it is state politicians from towns such as Mesa, Ariz.; Durham, N.C., and Silver City, N.M., who are redefining how America copes with an estimated 11 million illegal residents, more than half from Mexico.

The result is a patchwork of new state laws retooling workers' rights, driver's license eligibility, taxpayer-funded benefits and criminal justice for illegal immigrants. Like Arizona and New Mexico, states are taking different tacks. Nearly as many new state laws help illegal immigrants as hinder them.

"The broad phenomenon is that states have to grapple with the issue of immigration because of failure on behalf of the federal government," said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Immigration Studies, which favors tighter immigration controls. "The state and localities end up holding the bag."

Whether states are welcoming or forbidding to illegal immigrants isn't as simple as a red-state, blue-state divide.

"It's not an issue that breaks down conveniently R vs. D," said Douglas Rivlin, spokesman for the National Immigration Forum , which supports broader rights for immigrants. "Like a lot of issues, the more experience you have, the more you know how to deal with it."
Numbers shed light on the story. Almost two-thirds of illegal immigrants live in just eight states, according to estimates from the Pew Hispanic Center , which like Stateline.org is funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts. California, Texas, Florida and New York top the list, followed by Arizona, Illinois, New Jersey and North Carolina.

But since the mid-1990s, more migrants are choosing to live in states that previously had only relatively small numbers of foreign-born residents, legal or illegal, according to the Center. Thus, 17 states, including Arizona, North Carolina, Georgia and Tennessee, are dealing for the first time with sizeable concentrations of illegal immigrants.

What seems to be driving immigration politics in some states is growing resentment of the new waves of immigrants, ranging from the rise of "Minuteman Project" citizen militias in Arizona and at least 22 other states to the case this spring of two police chiefs in New Hampshire who tried to use trespassing laws to arrest illegal immigrants.

That simmering backlash is a political undercurrent that could cause problems for President Bush, who is planning a new push this fall to revive his own immigration reform proposal that would grant guest-worker permits to undocumented migrants.

Frustration at illegal immigration already is creeping into state elections, creating what could be a wedge issue.

Republicans in Arizona are accusing Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who faces re-election in 2006, of being soft on the waves of foreigners sneaking in from Mexico by the hundreds of thousands. Just months before the November 2005 election, Virginia GOP gubernatorial candidate Jerry Kilgore has jumped into a local dispute to oppose funding for a migrant laborer's work center.

California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger (R) has applauded Arizona's Minuteman militia and announced his support for a fence near San Diego to keep out illegal immigrants from Mexico.

Politicians in states such as Georgia, North Carolina and Oregon are facing pressure to address illegal immigration. Plus, predictions are that as many as 11 states will try to put initiatives on the 2006 ballot that copy Arizona's recent ban against using taxpayer dollars to help illegal immigrants.

Backlash against illegal immigrants

State efforts against illegal immigration had been chilled since the political fallout from California's adoption of Proposition 187 in 1994. The ballot initiative, later thrown out in court, sought to cut off social services for illegal immigrants, even free public schooling for the children. Its passage, championed by then-Gov. Pete Wilson (R), boomeranged against Republicans. It spurred Hispanic voters to mobilize and pushed the GOP out of power until Schwarzenegger reclaimed the governor's seat two years ago.

Arizona broke the ice in November 2004 when 55.6 percent of statewide voters adopted a ballot initiative -- Proposition 200 -- to prohibit undocumented immigrants from registering to vote and receiving taxpayer-funded social services.

There was little practical effect on illegal immigrants' lives, because federal law already makes them ineligible to vote or receive most benefits -- outside of emergency health care and public schooling for children. But the victory unleashed a bevy of bills in the Arizona Legislature attacking the rights and benefits of undocumented immigrants, and resulted in enactment of a handful. 

Other states have followed suit. In March, Democratic Gov. Mark Warner of Virginia signed a bill to prevent illegal immigrants from accessing social benefits and to require state workers to verify an applicant's immigration status.

"I truly believe the tide is turning," said Susan Tully, the Midwest field director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tighter borders. "Next year, you are going to see more legislation that is going to cut funding to illegal aliens."

One of the newest tactics being pioneered by states is giving local police the power to arrest immigrants who are here illegally, a job usually reserved for federal agents. This year, Arkansas became the third state to authorize training that eventually will allow select state troopers to double as immigration officials. Florida and Alabama have a similar policy.

States also have sought to exclude illegal immigrants from obtaining state-issued driver's licenses. All but nine states now bar illegal immigrants from getting a driver's license, either through state law or administrative policy. (See chart) But this is one area where Congress has taken steps in reaction to homeland security concerns.

In May, Bush signed the "Real ID" act, which forbids illegal immigrants from receiving a full-fledged driver's license. The law, set to take effect in 2008, preempts state laws -- reversing the nine states that wanted to license illegal immigrant drivers. States now will have the option of issuing "driver's certificates," adopted so far in Tennessee and Utah, that can't be used for identification purposes.

Organizers in 11 states are seeking to copy Arizona's Prop 200 with ballot initiatives of their own to bar social services to illegal immigrants, said Kristina Wilfore, executive director of the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, a liberal-cause advocate in Washington D.C. "I expect this to be a significant area of ballot initiative in 2006," Wilfore said, listing Alabama, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada, Virginia, Tennessee and Washington state.

In Colorado, where the illegal population has climbed to at least 200,000, a coalition of state and federal legislators has rallied behind a similar proposal that would impose restrictions on illegal immigrants' access to services. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R), one of the most vocal leaders of the movement, said the goal is to "make it more difficult for people who are here illegally to do their day-to-day business."

Immigrant advocates fight back But not all state action is to clamp down on illegal immigrants. In some cases, states are moving to incorporate them better into society, building support around health care and the increasingly popular idea of letting illegal immigrants pay in-state tuition to public colleges. Nine states -- California, Illinois, Kansas, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Texas, Utah and Washington -- allow illegal immigrants who grew up in the state to attend public colleges at in-state tuition rates. New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas also offer scholarships to illegal immigrant students.

There have been other victories for those who support equal rights for illegal immigrants.

Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) recently signed a bill to provide greater protection of day laborers, many of whom are illegal immigrants. The law imposes stiff penalties on employers who cheat day laborers, such as by illegally deducting meals or transportation from their paychecks, and creates new guidelines for hiring and paying these workers.

In early August, a Nevada state court ruled that illegal immigrants who work on public works projects must be paid as much as workers who are U.S. citizens.

Earlier this year, Washington state lawmakers reversed course and revived a law that provides health care to illegal immigrant children.

Currently, a handful of states -- including California, Massachusetts, New York and Washington -- provide non-emergency medical care to children, regardless of immigration status, according to the National Immigration Law Center, based in Los Angeles. Other states, such as Nebraska and New Jersey, provide blanket pre-natal care to expectant mothers.

"We are seeing a trend to take care of children at the same time there are efforts to restrict coverage for immigrants," said the law center's Tanya Broder, a staff attorney. "We are seeing that both waves are operating at the same time."

North Carolina more riled than Texas As more illegal immigrants settle in states unaccustomed to a particular ethnic minority, the more political turmoil seems to mount.

For example, there is limited political rancor over illegal immigrants in Bush's home state of Texas, where Republicans control both the Statehouse and the governor's mansion. Texas has longstanding family and economic relationships with Mexican immigrants. Even with an estimated 1.4 million illegal residents, the second-highest number after California, the Lone Star State is "not exactly a hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment," said Rivlin, of the National Immigration Forum.

Among states where immigrants traditionally have settled, both California and New York make pediatric health care and in-state tuition available to immigrants. This session, New Jersey legislators proposed studying the hardships of undocumented workers, while their counterparts in Illinois pushed to create an agency to help illegal immigrants who are victims of crime.

But in North Carolina, where Democrats control the governor's mansion and the Legislature, a few lawmakers received threatening e-mails after they introduced legislation to give in-state tuition to illegal immigrants. North Carolina has seen explosive growth in its foreign-born population in the past 15 years. It now has an estimated 300,000 illegal residents, more than all but seven other states.

The proposal to give tuition benefits to illegal immigrants eventually failed. Now the North Carolina Legislature is close to finishing work on a bill that would deprive illegal immigrants of driver's licenses.

"Clearly the folks with less experience are trying to grapple with this new influx without the weapons," says Ann Morse, an immigration analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Tags: Immigration