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States, cities taking on immigration reform

Thu., July 20, 2006

Dismay over Washington gridlock on immigration has inspired cities and states to pass their own measures, most of which make life harder for undocumented workers and demand that employers, law enforcement officers and even landlords act as the front line.

The city of Hazleton, Pa., last week passed one of the harsher laws, approving $1,000 fines for landlords who provide housing to illegal immigrants and denying business permits to employers who give them jobs.

Local governments from California to Idaho to Florida are weighing similar steps. States approved nearly 60 new laws in the last few months, overwhelmingly restrictive or punitive.

“It’s the blunt failure of any true leadership in Washington, D.C. Everything runs downhill,” said Andy Anderson, a city councilor in Palm Bay, Fla., who is pushing for an ordinance to punish employers who hire illegal immigrants.

One question is whether the local and state laws would stand if Congress overcame the split between the Senate and the House and approved a new federal law.

Many would be superseded, officials acknowledge – but they say it’s better to pass a local measure that won’t last than nothing at all, and right now it’s unclear whether Congress will make a deal.

“We have to do something, and it has to be done, like, yesterday,” Anderson said.

Colorado and Georgia led the way with sweeping laws that aim to require proof of citizenship for services and also target employers who hire illegal immigrants.

Overall, 27 states passed laws toughening rules on education, employment, legal services and identification, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. The 59 new laws that went on the books in this year’s legislative sessions were a big increase from the 37 immigration-related laws from the year before.

This year’s batch tilted sharply toward cracking down on immigrants, in contrast to earlier years when there was a mix of legislation, some of it loosening rules for obtaining services or education.

“Lawmakers and mayors, they want to make their area as inhospitable to illegal aliens as possible,” said Susan Wysoki at the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher border security and an end to illegal immigration.

Colorado’s measure, for instance, could remove as many as 50,000 illegal immigrants now living in the state from programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, unemployment insurance, energy assistance and aging and adult services, according to GOP Gov. Bill Owens.

Other Republicans, however, said the law went too easy on illegal immigrants, complaining that minors still get benefits.

But even states aren’t moving fast enough for some communities that feel overwhelmed.

In Idaho, commissioners in Canyon County filed a racketeering lawsuit against agricultural companies accused of hiring illegal immigrants. A judge struck down the lawsuit but an appeal is being pursued.

In Florida’s Palm Bay, the council is weighing whether to adopt an ordinance that would slap employers who hire illegal immigrants with a civil fine of $200 or with a criminal misdemeanor, which would carry penalties up to a $500 fine or 60 days in jail.

In earlier years, one of the arguments for leaving immigration issues alone is that they were a federal matter, not a state or local one. But now the political landscape has changed.

“States certainly have the right to determine how to regulate identification; they can regulate in-state tuition and use of their own employment law,” said Sherri Steisel, a lawyer with the National Council of State Legislatures.


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