Advocates for immigrants turn to state legislatures to block Arizona-style law

Khuteja Farheen, from left, Kamala Tamang Inman and Ruchi Dilbaghi pledge the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony in Texas.
Khuteja Farheen, from left, Kamala Tamang Inman and Ruchi Dilbaghi pledge the Oath of Allegiance at a naturalization ceremony in Texas. (Cody Duty/associated Press)
By Michael W. Savage
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 4, 2010

Advocates demanding stricter rules against illegal immigration -- including those backing Arizona's new law clamping down on undocumented immigrants -- have long argued that state lawmakers have been forced to act because of Congress's reluctance to take the lead.

But with little sign that Congress will act on comprehensive immigration reform this year, advocates for immigrants are also taking matters into their own hands. Like their political opponents, they have turned to their state legislatures to fight back.

In states from Pennsylvania to Utah, a battle of bills has been taking place between those who want to reproduce the Arizona law, which hands police more power to detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally, and those who want to extend further rights to immigrants.

Lawmakers have been using employment, health and anti-discrimination bills to counter a wave of anti-immigrant legislation. Others have introduced measures specifically designed to keep an Arizona-style law from ending up on their governor's desk.

Most are members of State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy, a group of 54 legislators from 28 states pushing pro-immigrant measures. Membership has jumped 50 percent since the Arizona law was enacted.

In Pennsylvania, state Sen. Daylin Leach (D) introduced a bill designed to block an Arizona-style law. Leach's measure would specifically bar police officers from accepting responsibility for enforcing federal immigration laws.

"Local police are supposed to stop street crime, which becomes more difficult to do if the people in the neighborhood you're policing don't trust you because they fear you will be investigating their immigration status," he said. "They're less likely to cooperate and offer tips, and adversely impact on the police to do the job they've always been entrusted to do."

He said there is too little time to pass his bill this year, but it would help block legislation designed to copy Arizona's example. That rival bill, which has also been introduced, would direct police to "attempt to verify the immigration status of suspected illegal aliens" who have been stopped for a separate reason.

Another tussle has emerged in Utah, where Republican lawmakers have pushed an Arizona-type bill. More-liberal lawmakers are fighting back. State Sen. Luz Robles (D) said she will reintroduce a bill next year designed to boost health-care coverage for immigrant children.

Currently, they have to wait five years to qualify for publicly funded health care. Her bill would remove the waiting period.

"We framed it as a health-care issue," Robles said. "We faced a budget problem, but not one on the policy itself. It's important for us to have all the children in the state covered."

But she was pessimistic about the direction in which her state was traveling on immigration. "Sometimes the state wants to make a strong signal to Washington," she said. "I, unfortunately, have to say I foresee the state of Utah running with an Arizona copycat-law bill."

Joe Bolkcom, a Democratic lawmaker in Iowa's Senate, has championed tougher employment laws to make his state more immigrant-friendly. His bill would require employers to put in writing the wages they agreed to pay workers and would increase fines against businesses who fail to pay those earnings. Bolkcom said the measures would have a major impact on the meatpacking industry, a major employer of immigrant labor.

"This legislation really targeted those employers who would take advantage of any Iowan workers, including newcomers," he said. "It's essentially a zero-tolerance policy, so we don't become a state where people are taken advantage of, whether they're new to our state or long-term Iowa workers."

A Michigan lawmaker provoked a war of words with her Republican counterparts in March after proposing pro-immigrant legislation. Democratic state Rep. Rashida Tlaib's bill seeks to protect undocumented immigrants from being denied compensation should they be injured at work.

Republican state Rep. Dave Agema, who has been pushing since last year for further anti-illegal immigrant measures, immediately castigated her. "I have been working for years to prevent illegal immigrants from getting jobs, benefits and driver's licenses," he said. "Now the Democrats have proposed workers' comp benefits for illegal aliens."

Members of the state lawmakers group welcomed President Obama's speech Thursday, in which he acknowledged that Washington had been slow to act on immigration reform. But the legislators have also called on the president to take firm action.

"Comprehensive immigration reform lies squarely in the hands of the federal government," the group said in a statement Thursday. "SLPIP will continue to advance forward-thinking state-based approaches to immigration. But this leadership from the states is not enough. Congress and the president need to step up to their responsibility to craft common-sense immigration reform that honors our American values."

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