Hill Impasse Spurs States to Tackle Illegal Immigration

By T.R. Reid
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 3, 2006

PHOENIX -- State legislatures around the nation are considering hundreds of proposals dealing with illegal immigration, reflecting the exasperation of many local officials with Congress's failure to contend with the millions of undocumented workers who have entered the nation in recent years.

Here in Arizona, the House has passed a proposal to set fines and other penalties for companies that hire undocumented workers. The bill, which had regularly failed in previous years, is expected to win Senate approval within days and is only one of many plans under consideration.

Others include bills to erect an 80-mile fence and a multimillion-dollar radar system along the Mexican border, designed to slow the nightly flow of migrants across the desert. Another bill would require police to check the citizenship of anyone stopped for a traffic offense. The state House, by a vote of 43 to 12, has passed a resolution calling on Washington to dispatch the U.S. Coast Guard to this landlocked, coast-free state to assist in patrolling the border.

For the most part, the new state measures are designed to get tough on illegal immigrants, on employers who give them jobs and on state officials who give them benefits. In some states, illegal immigrants can buy lottery tickets but cannot collect if they win a significant prize.

At the same time, though, some states are moving in the other direction -- making life easier for immigrants, legal or otherwise. In April, Nebraska's legislature overrode a gubernatorial veto to offer in-state college tuition rates to the children of illegal immigrants. Nine other states have formally authorized tuition breaks for undocumented immigrants, and many public universities employ a "don't ask, don't tell" policy for graduates of high schools in the states.

Maryland and Virginia lawmakers considered proposals to crack down on illegal immigrants in their recently concluded legislative sessions, but none passed.

The multistate approach, with some states at variance with others, threatens to create a maze of laws and regulations at a time when the nation as a whole is struggling with how to contend with an unprecedented wave of illegal immigration.

"We're not going to solve this problem with a patchwork approach at the state level. It's a national problem, and the need is to repair the national system," said Josh Bernstein of the National Immigration Law Center, which works to promote the rights of low-income immigrants. "We're not going to erect barriers between states."

Advocates on both sides said that Monday's economic boycott and rallies will work to their advantage. Opponents of illegal immigration said the protests hardened their resolve, while immigrants' rights activists predicted that the large turnout will sway lawmakers to their side.

The National Conference of State Legislatures has tallied 463 bills introduced this year in 43 states, by far the biggest crop of state immigration proposals ever recorded. Ann Morse, who tracks the issue for the NCSL, said this rush of legislation demonstrates that state legislators are no longer willing to cede this high-profile political concern to Congress.

Morse cited three reasons for the unprecedented interest in immigration at the state level. "First, there's the reaction to 9/11 and the concern that our borders are not safe," she said. "Another factor is the number of immigrants and a general sense that the influx is growing rapidly. And finally, we seem to have a Congress in gridlock on the issue. State legislators feel if they don't act, nobody will."

That last concern has been crucial in the legislature here, noted state Rep. Russell K. Pearce, a Republican who says he is "fed up" with his own party's management of the issue in Washington.

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