BOSTON - States legislatures passed more than twice as many bills dealing with illegal immigrants this year as they did in 2006, enacting laws on everything from employment rules to human trafficking, according to a study released today (Aug. 6).
Pressure from voters and frustration with Congress' inability to pass comprehensive immigration reform pushed 41 states to enact at least 170 laws this year, compared to 84 laws in 2006, according to an updated survey from the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). The bipartisan group represents the policy interests of the nation's state legislators and released the study during their annual meeting, where immigration policy will take center stage.
"People are afraid for their safety, people have environmental concerns for the destruction of the desert as people are coming across, said Arizona state Senate President Tim Bee (R), who represents citizens in three of the state's four counties bordering Mexico.
"The impact on our state's budget has been huge: incarcerations, prosecution, the funding of students for our schools, the health care system — all of these parts of the state budget are impacted by illegal immigration," Bee said.
Arizona led the charge this year, passing the nation's toughest sanctions against employers who get caught hiring undocumented workers. Businesses in the state caught twice knowingly violating that law will lose their license to operate. However, that law is being challenged in courts.
Including Arizona 19 states created 26 new laws related to employment, most dealing with verifying state workers residency to be hired or to receive unemployment or workers compensation benefits.
The most popular category of new laws require states to verify a person's legal residency status before issuing a business, professional or drivers license: 35 such laws were passed in 26 states, according to NCSL.
In addition, 11 states passed 15 laws in the area of public benefits — most requiring proof of legal status to receive those benefits.
But not all of the new laws are aimed at punishing illegal immigrants or the employers who hire them. Eleven states passed laws to crack down on the criminals that transport others across the borders.
A bill that passed the Illinois Legislature prohibits businesses from using a federal employment verification system until it meets more stringent accuracy measures. Gov. Rod Blagojevich (D) is still considering whether to sign that legislation.
A new California law extends all of the state's public benefits to migrant workers, while Oregon has made it illegal to perform any immigration consultation without having active status in the state's bar.
While lawmakers are virtually unanimous in calling for a federal reform, the divergence in new laws reflects sharp disagreements over what solutions they think the nation should pursue.
"I believe what Kansans want is to make sure that legal immigrants are treated fairly and given opportunity to advance and move forward. And that people who do illegal things ... comply with the law," said Kansas House Speaker Melvin Neufeld (R).
Kansas passed seven new laws aimed at illegal immigration this year, including a broad bill to crack down on identity fraud and require lawful presence to get a drivers license.
Neufeld criticized some of his peers who discussed the study on Sunday (Aug. 5). "A lot of people misunderstand the debate on immigration: there's very little anti-immigration, but there's a lot of resistance to illegal immigration. And some of the debate we've heard in here, they don't distinguish between the two, but the citizens do," Neufeld said.
North Carolina state Rep. Mark Luebke (D) said many of the residents of his state urging more action against illegal immigration are just reacting against cultures they are unfamiliar with.
In 2006, North Carolina did not pass any of the new laws aimed at curbing illegal immigration.
"Most of the state level laws are punitive laws. They are what sociology teachers would call blaming the victim — they blame the immigrant for being there. And I think thtat people are not informed enough about immigration," Luebke said.