States Think Smaller, Slower on Immigration

The headlong rush of states into immigration policy may be slowing. In legislative sessions this spring, ambitious proposals in state capitols have been watered down, delayed or outright defeated.

State legislators, many frustrated with federal inaction on immigration issues, continue to dive into the debate over whether undocumented immigrants are entitled to driver's licenses, in-state tuition at state universities, public benefits and business licenses.

But this year, their actions have been measured or curtailed by their governors or special interest groups, especially compared to recent years, when state lawmakers presented a flurry of new ideas and passed an unprecedented number of immigration-related laws.

In Indiana, Kentucky and Nebraska, get-tough proposals died in key committees. Ideas on the table included measures to shutter businesses that hired undocumented immigrants, enlist state police in federal immigration enforcement efforts and cut off public benefits to illegal immigrants.

Meanwhile, Utah lawmakers had to make several concessions to win Gov. Jon Huntsman's (R) support of a new law to prevent companies from hiring unauthorized workers. As a result, the law won't even take effect until 2009, giving the state time to study its potential impact and Congress time to deal with immigration at the national level.

Mississippi passed a tough hiring law that threatens businesses with loss of state contracts and their licenses for violation. But Gov. Haley Barbour (R) cited a long list of concerns with the measure and urged legislators to change the statute.

One area where states are taking a tougher stance is driver's licenses for illegal immigrants.

This year, Oregon, Michigan and Maryland backed off previous policies that allowed undocumented immigrants to drive legally - a change prompted by concerns over fraud and compliance with the federal Real ID Act. The federal law aims at keeping driver ' s licenses from terrorists and illegal aliens.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security threatened to make Maine residents subject to additional screening at airports under Real ID, citing flaws in how the state issues driver's licenses to illegal immigrants. Gov. John Baldacci (D) said he would try to limit licenses to people in the country legally, and, with that assurance, federal officials backed off the threat on Wednesday (April 2).

North Carolina and Tennessee rescinded similar policies since 2006, and a public uproar, led by Republicans in the New York Senate last fall, stopped then-New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer (D) from letting undocumented residents drive legally.

The year's legislative sessions are far from over, and immigration remains a hotly debated issue in numerous states where lawmakers are still meeting, including Alabama, Kansas, Missouri, Rhode Island and South Carolina. But even in those states, far-reaching proposals - from barring undocumented students from attending public universities in Missouri to mandatory identification cards for all Alabama workers - have run into trouble.

The cautious approach is a marked change from the last three years, when states competed to pass the strictest anti-illegal immigration law in the country. Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma all approved groundbreaking measures that cracked down on the problem.

Last year, 46 states enacted 240 new immigration-related measures - triple the number from the previous year, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A Stateline.org analysis of NCSL's survey shows the 240 measures include 190 new laws and 50 resolutions.

In the first two months of this year, lawmakers in 41 states have introduced more than 600 pieces of legislation, according to NCSL.

The issue had also been a hot topic on the campaign trail for states that had elections in 2007. It played an especially prominent role in elections in Mississippi and Virginia.

But now business groups, which are mounting strong opposition to many of the measures, say they're better organized to fight proposals that threaten to shut down companies that hire illegal immigrants, as laws passed last year in Arizona and Oklahoma do.

State budget woes and pocketbook issues are also overshadowing concerns about immigration. For example, Kentucky state Rep. Kathy Stein (D) cited the potential cost to state and local governments of an immigration crackdown as one of the reasons that she, as the head of the judiciary committee, killed a bill there that included a wide range of measures to combat illegal immigration.

Shorter legislative sessions of election years and the increased time demands of campaigning may also be playing a role, observers say, by giving lawmakers less time to iron out disagreements.

"If I were a state legislator, I'd probably be more aggressive. But I can't say this is some sort of surrender to illegal immigration," said Mark Krikorian, executive director for the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants to further curb immigration.

Krikorian suggested that policymakers in other states may be waiting to see whether tough policies adopted by states such as Arizona and Oklahoma will survive court challenges.

So far, legal challenges to those laws have been unsuccessful, but the fights continue. Business groups have taken the lead in trying to knock down the Arizona and Oklahoma measures, both of which punish businesses that don't use E-Verify, a controversial federal database to check the legal status of new hires.

One of the central arguments in all of the legal cases is whether states went too far and intruded on the federal government's turf in trying to regulate immigration.

Angelo Amador, the director of immigration policy for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, credited businesses with using lobbying and the threat of lawsuits to resist legislation requiring more employer check-ups on new hires.

Barbour, the Mississippi governor, urged legislators to retool a law they sent him that requires companies to use E-Verify, or face being sued, losing state contracts or their business licenses. The system has faltered in 8 percent of queries when confirmation requires further efforts, which can last for weeks, often because of outdated information, according to the Government Accountability Office .

Barbour asked lawmakers to consider letting companies use other ways of proving the legality of their workers.

"Mississippi's economy is growing; we have record employment. We don't want American citizens or others legally here to lose jobs because the verification system is technologically flawed," he said in his bill-signing statement.

Illinois legislators are reworking a law they passed last year that prohibits companies from using the same federal database. They're trying to strike a deal that would convince the U.S. Department of Homeland Security to drop a lawsuit it brought trying to invalidate the Illinois law.

Both Iowa and South Carolina lawmakers have also discussed other ways of verifying new hires' legal status, mainly by using other forms of identification.

But South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford (R) has grown frustrated with those efforts, threatening to stall any law's enactment. He criticizedseparate measures that passed the state House and Senate as ineffective and too weak.

In other states, momentum for sweeping immigration legislation slowed for a variety of reasons.

In Utah, the governor opposed a proposal to cut off in-state tuition to undocumented college students and to forbid illegal immigrants from driving legally, and those provisions were dropped from legislation. Huntsman approved an employee verification law, but it takes effect in 2009, after the next U.S. president has a chance to address immigration with Congress.

Tensions over immigration legislation ran high in Indiana, as Hispanic groups and the business community opposed a worker verification law. One Spanish-language newspaper even called the bill's sponsor, Sen. Mike Delph (R), " El Diablo" (the devil) in print. With Gov. Mitch Daniels (R) staying on the sidelines, the proposal languished at the end of session.

Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman (R) and Attorney General Jon Bruning suffered an embarrassing defeat when their joint effort to cut off benefits - including in-state tuition - to undocumented immigrants failed in a committee of the one-chamber, nonpartisan Legislature.

When the two officials held a press conference to criticize the judiciary committee for bottling up the measure, one of the committee's members, Sen. Ernie Chambers, crashed the party. Chambers, who is black, grabbed the microphone and accused the governor of "riding a crest of racism" to win support for the crackdown on illegal immigration.

Editor's Note: This story includes new information from the National Conference of State Legislatures on the amount of immigration-related legislation introduced by lawmakers in 2007 and 2008. It has been updated to clarify that Stateline.org analyzed NCSL's report to derive the number of laws and resolutions enacted last year.

Tags: Immigration