States crack down on illegal immigrants

Congress punts until after the elections; states turn ‘nativist’


Three days after the Colorado Legislature adjourned its special session on illegal immigration, the Capitol in Denver rang with the sounds of saws, hammers and Spanish-speaking voices.

Most of them belonged to construction workers, continuing a remodeling job after the Democratic-led Legislature passed the nation’s toughest package of immigration reforms. But the Spanish-speaking voice that spoke out clearest was that of Speaker of the House Andrew Romanoff, D-Denver, as he gave an interview to one of Colorado’s Spanish-language television stations after delivering 10 bills to the desk of Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

Romanoff told Colorado’s Spanish-speaking population that the legislation crafted during the July 6-10 session enforced existing federal and state laws in a "practical, thoughtful and humane" manner that protected public health and children. Owens echoed this in English at the July 31 bill signing.

With congressional efforts to pass immigration reform dead for 2006, states are tackling the issue themselves (HCN, 5/15/06: The Immigrant's Trail). More than 500 immigration-related bills were introduced this year, with at least 67 enacted in more than 27 states, including Washington, Idaho and Arizona.

If the federal government can’t "take the hint" and get moving, says Romanoff, states will continue to pass their own fixes, quilting the country in a "patchwork of 50 state-level solutions." Romanoff may have spoken in Spanish, but many of these "solutions" are aimed at slamming the door on immigrants.

Costs — and benefits

Among the legislation hammered out in Colorado is a statute modeled after a recently passed Georgia law that requires all applicants for government benefits to present identification proving they are in the country legally. Another bill forces employers to keep auditable copies of the legal paperwork for all new hires and increases fines for businesses found to be "recklessly" violating laws that prohibit hiring undocumented workers. Lawmakers also referred a measure to the November ballot that would direct the Colorado attorney general to sue the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

Although the burden on government coffers is often used as a reason to crack down on undocumented immigration, nobody seems to be able to quantify its exact costs and benefits in Colorado. In June, the nonpartisan Bell Policy Center reported that Colorado’s undocumented workforce pays $159 million to $194 million in state and local taxes, or about 70 to 86 percent of what the state spends on education, emergency health care and incarceration of undocumented immigrants. But on July 5, Owens told the state’s Joint Budget Committee that the cost of educating illegal immigrants and their American-born "anchor babies" last year was $564 million, and the anti-immigration group Defend Colorado Now, led by former Democratic Gov. Dick Lamm, estimates that it’s closer to $1 billion.

The current legislation can’t directly eliminate those expenses, since public education and emergency medical care must, under federal law, be provided to everyone, documented or otherwise. But Owens estimates that as a result of the benefits legislation alone, 10,000 of the state’s 250,000 or so illegal immigrants will now lose public services such as food stamps and Medicaid — services that are not legally available to undocumented immigrants.

Those figures merely epitomize the "lack of honesty in this debate," responds Ricardo Martinez, co-founder of the Colorado-based Hispanic rights organization Padres Unidos. Lawmakers have demonstrated little or no understanding of the immigrant plight, Martinez says: Immigrants have become vital to the state’s economy by working hard at difficult, low-paying jobs, and scamming the system is "the furthest thing from their minds." Rather than fix an ailing healthcare system or faltering schools, lawmakers have devised "a solution for a problem that doesn’t exist."

A wave of reform

Twelve years ago, California voters approved Proposition 187, which cracked down on undocumented immigrants by restricting benefits. Since then, the immigrant flow has spread to new parts of the country, such as the Interior West, the South and even the Midwest. Local and state crackdowns have followed the population shift, even as businesses welcomed the new workforce with jobs.

In 2006, Colorado instituted more reforms than any other Western state, passing 17 immigration bills. And even though parts of California’s Proposition 187 were found to be in violation of the U.S. Constitution, lawmakers continue to pass nativist laws in other states.

In May, the Washington State Republican Party approved a platform that would deny citizenship to the U.S-born children of undocumented immigrants, despite warnings from the state’s attorney general that this would violate the 14th Amendment. Like Colorado, Idaho passed bills limiting unemployment benefits to U.S. citizens.

Meanwhile, in Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed bills that would have criminalized illegal entry into Arizona and given her the authority to mobilize National Guard troops on the border. But immigration will be on her state’s ballot come November, with voters deciding whether to expand the list of state government benefits denied to illegal immigrants and make English the official language.

States won’t see federal action on immigration anytime soon, says Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo. Last December, the House passed the Sensenbrenner bill, which, among other things, would make undocumented immigration a criminal offense rather than a civil one. This summer, the Senate crafted its own bill, which added a guest-worker and legalization program, but also beefed up enforcement. Rather than attempting to reconcile the two bills, however, Republican leadership took the show on the road. They’re holding 19 field hearings in 13 states, delaying reform until at least January.

The delay doesn’t bother Colorado Congressman Tom Tancredo, chairman of the 104-member House Immigration Reform Caucus. Rep. Tancredo, an outspoken advocate for militarizing the southern border, called the hearings a "savvy political move," and seemed happy to let the states grapple with the issue. Colorado’s new laws, he says, are "a good first step towards rolling up the welcome mat to illegal aliens."

The author reports for The Colorado Statesman.

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