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Lawmakers across country taking immigration policy into own hands

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By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, June 24, 2010

With widespread attention focused on Arizona's tough new law against illegal immigration -- and a measure approved this week in the small town of Fremont, Neb. -- similar proposals are under consideration across the country.

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Five states -- South Carolina, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Michigan -- are looking at Arizona-style legislation, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. NDN, a Washington think tank and advocacy group, said lawmakers in 17 other states had expressed support for similar measures.

Since it was adopted in April, the Arizona legislation, which gives law enforcement officers the power to check the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally, has triggered bitter debate and been challenged in court by advocacy groups. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last week that the Justice Department plans to sue Arizona over the law, although a department spokesman has said the matter is under review.

This week, the spotlight shifted to rural Fremont, which narrowly passed an ordinance that would outlaw hiring illegal immigrants or renting property to them.

In the first three months of this year, legislators in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills or resolutions dealing with immigrants, an unprecedented number, according to the NCSL. By the end of March, 107 laws and 87 resolutions had been adopted by 34 states, with 38 bills pending. Not all of the proposals were designed to clamp down on illegal immigrants. Ann Morse, director of the Immigrant Policy Project at the NCSL, said they represented "a spectrum" of pro- and anti-immigration measures.

"When I talk to legislators about what they're doing in the state, they say this is their way of signaling they want federal immigration reform to happen -- that they care deeply about the issue, they're working within the parameters they have and sometimes at the edge, trying to get federal attention," she said.

Last month, the Massachusetts Senate amended its budget bill to require state contractors to confirm that their workers are in the country legally. Earlier, the Massachusetts House narrowly rejected a proposal to restrict public benefits to illegal immigrants.

In Pennsylvania, an Arizona-style bill is in the pipeline. Although police officers must have a separate reason to stop someone, the proposal would direct them to "attempt to verify the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens."

South Carolina is set to discuss an almost identical measure next year. And in Albuquerque, Mayor Richard Berry instituted a similar policy, which was upheld by a council vote.

Anti-illegal immigrant measures in Hazelton, Pa., and Farmers Branch, Tex., are being challenged in the courts.

In Fremont, those on both sides agreed that the town's new ordinance, which will take effect in July, marked a national pattern of local communities taking immigration policy into their own hands.

"I'm afraid this is part of a larger, nationwide trend, most obviously typified by what has happened in Arizona," said Amy Miller, the legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Nebraska, which is seeking an injunction against the Fremont law. "There is no rational reason for Fremont to be worried about protecting our border. But it is a community, like many in rural Nebraska, where the only population growth has been in new immigrants, many of them people of color."

"What will this lead to? Other municipalities in other states enacting their own laws," said Fremont council member Sean Gitt, who said he decided to support the measure after it was approved by the community.

"Fremont is an example of 'If Washington won't, Nebraskans will,' " said Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher immigration enforcement. Others note that the economy may determine whether other jurisdictions follow Arizona's lead.

"The big, overriding issue for nearly every state is the state of their budgets," said Morse. "Taking on additional law enforcement costs and court challenge costs is not at the front of their task list."


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