States move ahead with measures on illegal immigration
BY DAHLEEN GLANTON
Apr. 09, 2006
IMMOKALEE, Fla. - Facing the prospect that Congress might not come up with a new federal immigration law this year, state legislators are taking the matter into their own hands, proposing measures to make their states less attractive to illegal immigrants and to punish companies that hire them.
While much of the national debate has centered on the U.S. House bill that would crack down on undocumented workers, immigrant communities across the country are bracing for new state measures as well.
Almost 400 immigration-related bills have been introduced in 42 states since January, a result of the public outcry over the federal government's failure to secure America's borders, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
As thousands of immigrants and their supporters take to the streets across the country Monday to observe a National Day of Action, they will be demonstrating not just against what is going on in Washington, but what is happening in their own state capitals.
"Migrant workers are central to the economy in Florida and the rest of the country," said Gloria Hernandez, a Farmworker Association of Florida community coordinator in Immokalee, a community of an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 Mexican, Dominican and Haitian immigrants. "We are the ones who pick the vegetables, clean the hotel rooms and work in the restaurants. If we stop for one day, everybody, including President Bush, will notice."
Hernandez's state has one of the country's largest populations of illegal immigrants, and there are already stringent laws on the books there. Now legislators in states with newer populations of immigrants are trying to address the issue locally.
"There is a sense that states are trying to be responsive to the public and its frustration with the size of the illegal immigrant population," said Ann Morse, program director at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "It is happening across the board. Traditionally, immigration came to the big six states; now almost every state is grappling with it."
A bipartisan effort in the U.S. Senate fell apart Friday when Democrats and Republicans could not agree on how to proceed with a bill to tighten the borders and offer a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants who have been in the country at least five years. Even if passed, the Senate bill would have to be rectified with the stricter House bill, which calls for stronger enforcement measures and includes no route to citizenship.
Federal law pre-empts any state or local laws on immigration, but while Washington struggles with the issue, the states are pushing ahead.
Georgia lawmakers recently passed a sweeping bill denying state benefits such as unemployment compensation and non-emergency medical care to adults in the United States illegally and withholding tax deductions from companies that knowingly employ them. The bill, which would take effect in July 2007 if Gov. Sonny Perdue signs it, also requires police to notify U.S. immigration officials when they arrest an illegal immigrant.
Georgia's Republican-controlled General Assembly passed the bill as a group of immigrants protested on the Capitol steps. Supporters claim that the growing number of illegal immigrants have burdened schools and the health care system. Opponents argued that bill would be an inappropriate use of state resources and cannot solve any of the relevant issues related to immigration.
"It criminalizes employers and employees and creates a cumbersome mechanism to accomplish that. You can call it harsh or just plain stupid," said state Sen. Sam Zamarripa, a Democrat who chairs the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. "There is a mob mentality here that is trying to pander to a group of people who have been riled up by talk radio."
In Virginia, lawmakers proposed blocking illegal immigrants from getting marriage licenses. Tennessee legislators introduced more than a dozen bills this session, including one that would train state troopers to seize illegal immigrants. Tennessee also recently stopped issuing driving certificates, which allowed illegal immigrants to drive without a driver's license, after officials found that some were using fake papers to obtain them.
Measures in New Hampshire and North Carolina would give enforcement power to the local police. In Arizona, some lawmakers want to build a wall at the border with Mexico and install a $50 million radar system to track those attempting to cross it.
In Florida, there are already stringent laws on education, health care and unemployment compensation. As in most states, children of undocumented workers in Florida are classified as non-residents and must pay higher out-of-state tuition to attend college. In 2004, immigrant children were denied access to Florida KidCare after the state revised eligibility requirements for the program, which provides health insurance for minors. Seasonal farm workers and construction workers also are ineligible for unemployment compensation.
Most of the bills introduced in state legislatures would crack down on illegal immigrants, but some of the bills would go in the other direction, lessening some of the current restrictions.
Some states already have eased the rules. Illinois is one of 10 states that allow long-term illegal immigrant students to become eligible for in-state tuition. But the state has rejected measures to allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses. Nebraska and New Jersey are among the states considering allowing undocumented workers to get driver's certificates.
A recent poll by the Pew Research Center in Washington found that the public is split over many of the proposals to address the country's estimated 11 to 12 million unauthorized migrants. Fifty-three percent said people who are in the United States illegally should be required to go home and 40 percent said they should be granted some kind of legal status that allows them to stay in America.
The battle over immigration already is hitting hard in places such as Imokalee, a community that looks like it could be almost any small town in Mexico. Latin music blares from shops adorned with colorful hand-painted signs written in Spanish. People walk along casually, making their way home after a long day working in the fields picking tomatoes and oranges.
But residents say it is no longer safe to sit on a crate on the sidewalk talking with friends or allow their children to ride a bike down Main Street.
"Right now people are scared because they don't feel empowered," said Gloria Hernandez, a community organizer working to educate residents, most of whom do not speak English, about the immigration bills in Congress. "Most of them don't watch television, see the news or read the newspaper, so we have to inspire them."
In a scene being played out across the country, about 200 farm workers and their families gathered in an auditorium recently as Hernandez and others talked for three hours about the value of undocumented workers to the U.S. economy.
Andres and his wife Anastacia, illegal immigrants who declined to give their last name, are caught in the middle of the national squabble, but until that night, they did not understand what it was all about. But they figured out the most important thing: Some people want to take away Andres' $10-an-hour construction job, kick his family out of the tiny house they rent for $510 a month and send them back to Mexico. Andres left his home in Hidalgo 10 years ago.
As a result, Andres and Anastacia keep their children close and try to stay out of sight as much as they can.
"Before, we could walk in the street freely. Now we are scared to go out," Anastasia, 32, said through an interpreter. "I wish they would change the law so people can live without fear."
It is hardest for the couple's 10-year-old son, Guadeloupe. His father has not talked to the three children about what is going on because he does not want to scare them. But Guadeloupe already knows.
"I feel scared all the time," said the third-grader, who was born in this country and often is the English interpreter for his parents. "There is not going to be nobody to take care of me. No one to make my food. I think about this a lot."
The family came to the recent rally here because they wanted to know about the bills pending in Washington. Andres, 36, left the meeting feeling very uncertain, not sure whether the dream he had for his children will be fulfilled.
"I want them to study and become somebody. This is why we came to America," he said through an interpreter. "We want them to have a better future than we did. We went through a lot to get here and it is being taken away."
radar huh? why not just have GSR teams train on the border?
NOW WE'RE TALKING!!!!!!!
It has been on AM every day for three weeks here