Immigration tops most states’ agendas
This year, at least 1,169 immigration-related bills have been introduced in all 50 state legislatures, according to the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Officials say the number of state bills — more than twice as many as in 2006 — is an indication of a void left by a lack of federal action on immigration. But a federal court decision may overturn the states' and many local governments' actions.
Although immigration policy falls under federal jurisdiction, states often must pay for federally mandated programs, particularly education, health care and law enforcement. “State legislators busy in the immigration arena have become frustrated by inactivity at the federal level,” says NCSL Policy Associate Dirk Hegen. NCSL has been tracking the various bills, which fall into 14 categories of public policy, such as documentation, employment, education, benefits, legal services and human trafficking.
Tennessee legislators proposed 45 immigration-related bills, five of which became laws, says Stephen Fotopolus, policy director for the Nashville-based Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition. “This session has been interesting for us because there are so many people who are trying to be one-issue policy makers,” he says. “Everyone has been looking to do something to say they are addressing illegal immigration.”
While many bills have addressed only one issue, Oklahoma passed an omnibus immigration bill in April that covers four major areas: documentation, public assistance, employment and law enforcement. The law prevents illegal immigrants from obtaining official government identification documents, including driver's licenses and voter registration cards. The legislation also terminates public assistance or entitlement benefits, with the exception of emergency medical assistance; criminalizes those who have an unlawful presence in the state and/or who harbor and transport undocumented aliens, or make them eligible for bail; and penalizes employers who hire undocumented workers. “Illegals will not come [to Oklahoma] if there are no jobs, no subsidies, and if they know they will be detained if they come in contact with law enforcement,” says State Representative Randy Terrell, R-Okla., who sponsored the bill. Terrell says those crafting the bill wanted the Oklahoma legislation to be in sync with federal immigration policy.
In June, a comprehensive federal immigration reform bill, which would have provided federal funding to state and local governments to help cover the cost of incarcerating illegal immigrants as well as education and health care costs, died in the Senate. The complex, 800-page bill also would have created a pathway to legal residency or citizenship for illegal immigrants now living in the United States. It is unlikely that another immigration bill will be introduced before the 2008 elections, NCSL officials say.
Also, on July 26, Judge James Munley with the U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania overturned a set of ordinances in Hazleton, Pa., that would have punished businesses and property owners that hire or harbor illegal immigrants. Hazleton's ordinances served as a model for many similar ordinances in other cities, according to The New York Times. Hazleton Mayor Louis Barletta plans to appeal the decision to the 3rd Circuit Court and may take the case as far at the Supreme Court.
In his ruling, Munley wrote that federal law pre-empts the Hazleton ordinances. The judge claimed that the laws also violated the constitutional rights enjoyed even by illegal immigrants. “Since the Constitution protects even the disfavored, the ordinances cannot be enforced,” Munley wrote.
Annie Gentile is a Vernon, Conn.-based freelance writer.