By Anthony Faiola
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 15, 2007
NEW YORK -- In New York, state officials are about to offer driver's licenses to illegal immigrants and already have extended limited medical coverage to those battling cancer. In Illinois, the state legislature just passed a law forbidding businesses there from using a federal database to check the legal status of employees.
Oklahoma, meanwhile, recently passed some of the toughest immigration laws in the nation, including one making it a felony to "transport" or "harbor" an illegal immigrant -- leading some to fear that people such as school bus drivers and church pastors may be at risk of doing time. Tennessee's legislature this year revoked laws granting illegal immigrants "driving certificates" and voted to allow law enforcement officers to effectively act as a state immigration police.
As the Bush administration and Congress sit gridlocked on an immigration overhaul, states are jumping into the debate as never before. In the process, they are creating a national patchwork of incongruous immigration laws that some observers fear will make it far more difficult to enact any comprehensive, federally mandated bill down the line.
The number of states passing immigration-related bills has skyrocketed this year. No fewer than 1,404 pieces of immigration-related legislation were introduced in legislatures during the first half of 2007, with 182 bills becoming law in 43 states. That is more than double the number of immigration-related state laws enacted during all of 2006, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Some observers are alarmed by the trend, calling the widely divergent laws further evidence of America's cultural divide and saying they could pose new hurdles in reaching a national consensus on immigration. Piecemeal policymaking is opening the door to a flurry of legal battles -- the Department of Homeland Security, for instance, is suing Illinois for banning businesses there from confirming an employee's legal status through the federal E-Verify database, which state officials have called flawed and unreliable.
Others argue that the inability to reach a national solution has left states no choice. Governors are grappling with cities and towns that, in the absence of a national or state policy, have taken it upon themselves to pass local immigration laws either protecting or cracking down on illegal immigrants. This has occasionally lead to radically different regulations within individual states.
Still others assert that the rush of state activism has created an unforeseen opportunity. By viewing states as laboratories and studying the successes and failures of their various policies, Americans may find useful information, even a road map, for developing a national strategy.
Perhaps the most compelling current example is Oklahoma, where a package of tough new laws will not only make it a crime to transport or harbor illegal immigrants, but will also strip such immigrants of any right to receive most health care, welfare, scholarships or other government assistance; penalize employers who hire illegal workers; and force businesses to verify the legal status of new hires.
That "comports with my philosophy that illegal aliens will not come to Oklahoma or any other state if there are no jobs waiting for them," said Randy Terrill, a Republican state legislator and the author of the bill. "They will not stay here if they know they will get no taxpayer subsidy, and they will not stay here if they know if they ever come into contact with one of our fine law enforcement officers, they will stay in custody until they are physically deported."
Hispanic business groups, citing school enrollment losses and church parish figures, say the laws, which start going into effect later this year, have caused as many as 25,000 undocumented workers to flee the state in recent months. The loss is being decried by the Oklahoma State Home Builders Association.
"In major metro areas we are seeing people leave based on the perception that things are going to get bad for them and that this state doesn't want them here," said Mike Means, executive vice president of the association. "Now we're looking at a labor shortage. I've got builders who are being forced to slow down jobs because they don't have the crews. And it's not like these people are going back to Mexico. They're going to Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Arkansas, anywhere where the laws aren't against them."
Means said that while construction wages haven't yet gone up in Oklahoma, they are likely to do so if the shortage worsens. Advocates of such laws say that is precisely how strict regulations on illegal immigration can help American workers -- by forcing wages higher. But construction industry leaders counter that a wage increase in Oklahoma, where builders are already paying $15 to $20 an hour for labor in a state with low unemployment, would lead to a net loss of jobs as some businesses are forced to close, particularly if other states allow less stringent hiring practices.
"This is what happens when you don't have a national policy," Means continued. "If I'm an Oklahoma builder on the border with Texas, you're going to face unfair competition because they don't have the laws we do. This needs to be standardized."
While local governments have been enacting a growing number of pro- and anti-immigration ordinances, states, with notable exceptions such as California, have until recently been more cautious. Experts say that is partly because achieving consensus on a state level is far harder than in smaller communities, but also because many states have awaited guidance from the federal government.
But as state officials have concluded that they can no longer afford not to act, they are often finding that doing so is an invitation for discord.
That is particularly true in New York, where Gov. Eliot L. Spitzer (D), the former attorney general who championed labor rights for immigrants, touched off a firestorm after announcing last month that he was reversing pre-Sept. 11 rules that had made it virtually impossible for illegal immigrants in the state to obtain a driver's license.
"The federal government has failed to establish a coherent or rational policy, and as a consequence, we are left to deal with this on a state level," Spitzer said in an interview with The Washington Post last week. "We're left dealing with the reality of up to 1 million [illegal] immigrants in New York. . . . I would prefer to have [them] carrying a legitimate form of identification, a driver's license that allows them to get insurance, allows our law enforcement to track their driving records and brings these drivers out of the shadows."
The ruckus over the policy change has been particularly heated because several of the Sept. 11, 2001, hijackers used illegally obtained driver's licenses as identification when renting vehicles or boarding flights. Spitzer argues that his plan will make it harder to get a license illegally, by requiring new electronic equipment in motor vehicles offices across New York to verify foreign passports and other documents used to obtain a license.
But many here counter that no matter what equipment is used, granting driver's licenses with a foreign passport as a primary proof of identity constitutes a significant security threat. Still others argue against the notion that illegal immigrants should be awarded any kind of government-issued identification.
Opposition is so fierce, particularly among state Republicans, that a handful of county clerks have publicly rebelled. Several have said they will instruct their driver's license offices -- many of which are staffed by county, not state, employees -- to disregard the new guidelines. And the Monroe County government, near Rochester, has gone as far as voting to continue making a valid Social Security number a requirement for a driver's license, setting up a potential legal showdown with the state.
"The government is trying to bring them into the fold, but how can you extend a privilege to drive legally in the United States to someone who is here illegally?" asked Frank J. Merola, the Republican clerk of Rensselaer County, near the state capital, Albany. "I'm not saying, 'Let's go out there and round them up,' but I am saying that it's wrong to reward them for breaking the law."
Not surprisingly, the plan, to go into effect in phases within eight months, is being hailed by New York's thriving immigrant community. A 33-year-old Manhattan lounge singer who would provide only his first name, Amilcar, because he arrived in the United States illegally from Mexico, said he has had to turn down numerous offers for work in New Jersey and elsewhere because he could not drive himself and was unable to afford the cost of transporting his equipment.
"But this is going to open new doors for me now," he said excitedly, noting that he has already made plans to buy a car. "I feel like having a driver's license is a going to be a great new freedom. It's why I came to America in the first place."
Staff writer Robin Shulman in New York contributed to this report.