Local governments want comprehensive immigration reform
Amid the heated congressional debate on reforming the nation's immigration laws, local officials are pushing for a comprehensive legislative package to address their law enforcement and healthcare needs. City and county leaders strongly support comprehensive federal reform that not only emphasizes border protection, but also addresses the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants already in the country. While officials say immigration has many positive effects, undocumented immigrants put a significant strain on local healthcare and law enforcement budgets.
Several divisive bills have been debated in Congress. The House passed a bill in December focusing on border security without a guest worker program for immigrants or a way for illegal immigrants to become citizens.
In the Senate, debate has focused on an enforcement-minded bill from Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and the more comprehensive McCain/Kennedy bill that included President Bush's guest worker program. The Senate Judiciary Committee passed McCain/Kennedy, but the bill failed in the Senate. In April, Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Mel Martinez, R-Fla., introduced a compromise bill that failed.
Roughly half a million immigrants live in Arizona's Maricopa County in the greater Phoenix area, according to Don Stapley, chairman of the county's board of supervisors and second vice president for the Washington-based National Association of Counties (NACo). Small border towns are hit harder by the cost of illegal immigrants, he adds.
Enforcement of illegal immigration is a key issue for many local leaders. “We feel the federal government has the responsibility to deal with illegal immigration, however, our counties have a responsibility, too, and that puts a strain on our budgets [when immigrants seek public services],” says Ed Rosado legislative director for NACo. Counties do not get enough federal reimbursement to cover those costs, he adds.
Rosado also says it is important for federal law not to change illegal immigration from a civil to a criminal act, which some of the pending bills would do. “That would mean more costs for our local police because of incarcerations,” Rosado says.
Indianapolis Mayor Bart Peterson says requiring local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws would compromise its other duties. “Local law enforcement needs the trust of the community, but if [immigrants] in the community think they are enforcing immigration laws rather than just the basic enforcement, they would be fearful about talking to police about crimes or reporting crimes,” says Peterson, who is first vice president for the Washington-based National League of Cities (NLC).
The National Governors Association, the National Conference of State Legislatures, NACo and NLC have formed an immigration policy group. The group has met already with House and Senate leadership and key members in the debate, and a second meeting is planned, says Marilina Sanz, an associate legislative director at NACo.
Peterson also says an NLC internal task force is working to educate people about immigration and to “really separate fact from fiction.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.