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States Take On Border Issues

Legislatures across the country look to deter illegal immigration by cutting services, making arrests or sanctioning employers.

January 16, 2006|Nicholas Riccardi | Times Staff Writer

PHOENIX — Frustrated by congressional inaction and pushed by rising anger at home, legislatures across the country are debating a variety of tough new restrictions on illegal immigrants.

For years, states deferred to the federal government on immigration matters, but as illegal immigrants have spread throughout the country and Congress has been unable to pass an immigration reform bill, that has changed.

In the first six months of last year, states considered about 300 immigration-related bills and passed 36 of them, the National Conference of State Legislatures said.

Florida allowed state law officers to arrest illegal immigrants. Arizona barred day-laborer centers from receiving public funds. Virginia denied some state benefits to undocumented workers.

This year, the proposals include cutting off benefits to illegal immigrants, allowing local police to identify those in the country illegally and, in Arizona, sending National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border.

"You can say it's a federal problem all you want, but the truth is it's in your backyard so the problem's yours," said Susan Tully of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an advocacy group that seeks to reduce illegal immigration.

President Bush last year called for beefing up border security and a guest-worker program to allow migrants to work legally in the U.S. But the proposal stalled in Congress, and states said they were forced to act to control illegal immigration.

Traditionally, illegal immigrants have settled in border states such as California and Texas or in metropolitan centers such as New York.

But since 1990, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of illegal immigrants living outside these areas. States far from the Mexican border, such as Minnesota and New Hampshire, began fielding complaints about the proliferation of Spanish-language signs and increased burdens on public hospitals and schools.

"There's a cultural shift that people are sensing in their guts," said Colorado state Rep. David Schultheis, a Republican.

Immigrant advocates say fear of that cultural shift is leading to bad public policies.

"What is new is the extent of immigration, some of it legal, some of it not, in new communities across the country," said John Trasvina of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund. "They don't know how to deal with it so they freak out and pass laws."

Indeed, some states are striving to develop a reputation for being tough on illegal immigrants in hopes of discouraging any more from settling.

"While we're not a border state, I thought it proper to make sure we don't find ourselves in the same situation as California, Arizona and New Mexico 10 years from now," said Georgia state Sen. Chip Rogers, a Republican who is backing a bill that would deny state services to undocumented workers.

Opponents of illegal immigration hope the recent wave of legislation represents a change in the way the country deals with immigration, a transformation they had hoped for 12 years ago when California voters passed Proposition 187 to end benefits for undocumented workers. That initiative was overturned in the courts and the anticipated onslaught of immigration restrictions fizzled.

In California, the Legislature will consider, for the seventh time, a proposal to grant drivers licenses to illegal immigrants. It will also consider a bill to have the California National Guard come up with a plan to secure the border.

Those who have spent years crusading against illegal immigration are pleased with the stepped-up activity.

"People who have never been engaged in this issue are engaged this year," said Arizona state Rep. Russell Pearce. The Republican legislator has proposed installing, at state expense, a $50-million radar system along his state's border with Mexico to identify immigrants crossing the desert into the U.S.

Arizona's Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who in 2004 opposed a ballot initiative to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants in Arizona, last summer declared a state of emergency along her state's border, the busiest crossing for migrants. Last week she unveiled a $100-million proposal that includes posting National Guard troops along the border, toughening penalties for fraudulent identification papers and punishing businesses that employ illegal immigrants.

Though the legislative season is young and state representatives and senators are refining their proposals, certain trends have emerged. A few proposals are friendly to illegal immigrants, such as a Massachusetts bill to extend in-state college tuition to them. But most are crystallizing around three categories: denying benefits, allowing local police to arrest people for being in the country illegally, and increasing fines on employers who hire undocumented workers.

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