Legislators in nearly a dozen states are considering tough new laws against illegal immigration that mimic the Arizona measure that has triggered a firestorm of controversy nationwide.
The combination of polls showing increasing voter frustration with federal enforcement efforts, plus the growing fiscal pressure on states facing major budget problems, has emboldened conservative legislators to eye state-level reforms similar to those that Arizona GOP Gov. Jan Brewer recently signed into law.
"The intensity is still there. It's growing," says Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a group that generally supports stronger border-control efforts.
"Whatever talk there is of any federal response is unfortunately the kind of response that most people oppose: Amnesty for illegal aliens, coupled with promises that 'We'll try to do better next time,'" Mehlman tells Newsmax. "And I don't think the American people are going to buy that. They were fooled once in 1986. George Bush tried to fool them again in 2007. And they said no."
The Arizona measure directs police to question lawful residency only after individuals have been stopped on reasonable suspicion of having violated another law. It directs police to verify residency if suspects are unable to produce documentation, provide a Social Security number, or otherwise establish their legal residency. The law has sparked widespread protests by pro-immigration groups nationwide.
Despite that backlash, conservative lawmakers in North Carolina, Maryland, Colorado, Missouri, Ohio, and several other states are considering following Arizona's lead via state legislation to stem the tide of illegal immigration. If nothing else, their support for further restrictions on illegal immigration indicates they see it as a winning political issue.
One reason state legislators aren't intimidated by threats of legal action from the Obama administration, as well as from a host of pro-immigrant groups: A plethora of polls suggesting state-level legislation, in the absence of stiffer federal enforcement and border control, would be very popular with voters. A few recent examples:
- A USA Today/Gallup poll released Wednesday shows that 9 out of 10 Americans say it is at least moderately important for the federal government to act this year to secure the borders and stop illegal immigration. Just over 60 percent say they are very concerned undocumented workers are putting an unfair burden on U.S. schools, hospitals, and social services.
- Almost 70 percent of voters in the South and 66 percent of voters in the Midwest — two regions that may well determine whether Democrats continue to control Congress — say the Arizona law is either "about right," or it doesn't go far enough, in combating the problem of illegal immigration.
- A recent Rasmussen poll found that 60 percent of voters nationwide support Arizona's law.
- Various polls that indicate between 64 percent and 70 percent of Arizona voters support the new law. After Brewer signed bill, her approval ratings in Arizona jumped 16 percent.
Experts say the polls partially reflect voter frustration with the economic burdens of undocumented workers, especially on cash-strapped states hit hard by unemployment and the weak economy.
Some costs, such as crime, are hard to gauge. Whether illegal workers are more likely to commit other crimes is frequently debated by experts of all political stripes.
According to FAIR, Phoenix has the second-highest kidnapping rate in the world, second only to Mexico City. It adds that kidnappings and home invasions in Arizona rose 61 percent since 2005, although how much of this spike in violence is attributable to illegals is in dispute.
The impact on state budgets is measured more easily. FAIR states that the Arizona's estimated 460,000 undocumented workers represent 37 percent of its uninsured population. The public cost of caring for those individuals: about $510 million a year.
"When the federal government fails to enforce our immigration laws," Mehlman says, "it is the taxpayers in Arizona, or Maryland, or whatever state you happen to be living in who are then forced to pay for education, for healthcare, for other social services. They're the ones who have to deal with crime that may be associated with illegal immigrations. These burdens are felt at the state and local level."
Steven A. Camarota, research director for the nonprofit Center for Immigration Studies, gives the new law a guarded endorsement, providing that police are monitored to ensure traffic stops of Hispanics don't increase due to racial profiling.
Requiring identification after a traffic violation is just common sense, Camarota tells Newsmax. Without proper identification, a citation is virtually unenforceable anyway, he says.
"It seems like the law in many ways is well constructed, and it does some common sense things," Camarota says. "Especially the fact that anytime you arrest somebody, any time you have a citation, you have to determine their identity, or the arrest and the citation are largely meaningless. Especially in the case of a citation, it's just common sense … otherwise you have a situation where police pull somebody over and they let them go only if they're illegal. Who would think that's a good idea?"
Given the growing cost and unpopularity of illegal immigration, more and more state legislators are willing to push for tougher enforcement despite the controversy. A round up of state-level legislative and political activity:
The state assembly recently passed a resolution urging the federal government to fix the nation's broken immigration system, and the issue has become a hot one in the GOP gubernatorial primary. Former eBay CEO Meg Whitman opposes the Arizona law, although she supports the elimination of sanctuary cities and promises to build "an economic fence" to prevent employers from hiring undocumented workers. Her closest GOP rival, businessman Steve Poizner, dropped his opposition to the Arizona law after it was amended to reduce the risk it would lead to racial profiling. He now supports it, saying: "We are bankrupt. We are out of cash and we need to take some steps to stop the flow of people who are here illegally."
Republican gubernatorial candidate Scott McInnis, also a former congressman, said he would support "very similar" legislation is elected governor. McInnis, a former police officer, supports laws mandating that all noncitizens should required to carry documents proving their legal status. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Bill Ritter said he would veto a law that mirrors Arizona's.
Support for tougher immigration laws is very strong in the Sunshine state. A Rasmussen poll released Wednesday shows that 62 percent of Florida voters "favor a law like Arizona’s that authorizes local police to stop and verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant. However, tea party favorite Marco Rubio, the Republican U.S. Senate candidate, has voiced serious reservations with the Arizona law.
Former Congressman Nathan Deal, a Republican running for governor, says he would work to enact similar legislation. Border states have suffered "war-like conditions triggered by the violence of drug cartels," he says.
In a state that used to issue driver's licenses to illegals, GOP State Delegate Pat McDonough has introduced a bill that he calls "a copy of the Arizona law." McDonough does not expect it to pass this session of the Legislature, but is surveying colleagues to gauge support.
Republican State Rep. Mark Parkinson has submitted an Arizona-style bill to the Missouri House but says there probably isn't enough time to squeeze it through the Senate. He believes it will have a better chance in the next session.
In July, voters will rule on a proposal to ban the hiring of illegals or otherwise "harboring" them.
Groups opposed to illegal immigration have said there is an overwhelming likelihood that legislation similar to Arizona's will be filed. They probably don't have the votes to get the measure passed, however.
A court has struck down key provisions of a law intended to discourage illegal immigration, while letting stand a requirement that employers use the E-Verify system to establish residency status before hiring an employee.
State Rep. Courtney Combs, a Republican, recently wrote a letter to Gov. Ted Strickland and top state legislators urging that they enact strong new immigration laws. Strickland, a Democrat, said he would not sign such a bill. Combs hopes to circumvent Strickland by putting the question to the voters directly. "I have had so many people call and volunteer to help us get this on the ballot," Combs told CNSNews.com. "I firmly believe if we get this on the ballot, it will pass. That would be an amazing feat, for the people to override the governor."
Two lone star Republicans are planning to introduce Arizona-type measures. That probably won't sit well with Gov. Rick Perry, who has voiced his opposition to the Arizona measure. Rep. Debbie Riddle of Tomball and Rep. Leo Berman of Tyler both say they support the legislation.
GOP State Rep. Stephen Sandstorm says he has the votes he needs to pass a law that would require immigrants to carry proof of status, direct law officers to question people they have reason to believe may be in the country illegally, and would target businesses that hire or transport undocumented workers.
How many of these proposals are ultimately enacted is anybody's guess. "It will probably be sort of a mixed bag," Mehlman says. "I think some states will probably wait to see how all this shakes out in the courts."
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