States inspired by Arizona illegal-immigration law face tough fiscal realities

As the controversial law kicks in, residents and law enforcement officials struggle to make sense of the situation in the town of Benson, Ariz.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 29, 2011; 12:00 AM

As state legislatures convene this month, lawmakers across the country who had vowed to copy Arizona's strict measure cracking down on illegal immigrants are facing a new reality.

State budget deficits, coupled with the political backlash triggered by Arizona's law and potentially expensive legal challenges from the federal government, have made passage of such statutes uncertain.

In the nine months since the Arizona measure was signed into law, a number of similar bills have stalled or died or are being reworked. Some have faced resistance from law enforcement officials who question how states or communities could afford the added cost of enforcing the laws.

And some state legislators have backed away from the most controversial parts of the Arizona law, which have been challenged in court by the federal government and others. A federal judge has put on hold some of its provisions, including those that would allow police to check immigration status if they stop someone while enforcing other laws, allow for warrantless arrests of suspected illegal immigrants and criminalize the failure of immigrants to carry registration papers. The case is awaiting a ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit.

"Obviously most places were not going to pass Arizona bills," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration laws. "There's always an initial flush of enthusiasm and then the reality of politics sets in. . . . These states are bankrupt - they need to decide what battles they want to fight."

But Krikorian also said that the Arizona bill has "done what it was supposed to do" by creating a national discussion on immigration reform in the absence of federal legislation.

"I won't be surprised to see more state task forces looking more fully at this issue," said Ann Morse, program director with the Immigrant Policy Project at the National Conference of State Legislatures. "The interest level is still there, but states are looking at the implications."

Georgia, Mississippi, Indiana, Florida, Nebraska, Kentucky, Utah, Pennsylvania, Texas and South Carolina are among the states where Arizona copycat bills have been drafted.

In Florida, an Arizona-style bill that appeared headed for passage a few months ago appears to be on life support. Even its primary Senate sponsor has expressed concern that the provision allowing police to check a person's immigration status during a traffic stop could amount to racial profiling.

In Utah, a state dominated by conservative Republicans, a couple of bills similar to Arizona's statute are in the legislative pipeline. But in November, state leaders from business, law enforcement, education and the Mormon Church urged moderation - and with some success. They drew up the "Utah Compact," which declares immigration a federal issue and urges legislators to focus resources on local crime.

Kirk Jowers, director of the Hinkley Institute of Politics at the University of Utah, said the compact already "has had a big impact on a number of legislators. . . . Some aren't backing down, but there are other bills floating around that are far more moderate."

Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports tougher immigration restrictions, said states will probably bite off the small pieces of the Arizona bill that fit their constituencies.

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