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

By Lois Romano
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.

"There is tremendous interest . . . in emulating portions of the Arizona model," he said. "But no one size fits all."

One area in which many states are finding consensus is with "E-Verify" legislation, which requires businesses to use an Internet-based system to check the legal status of prospective employees.

But when it comes to more restrictive laws, there is less agreement.

In Texas, business leaders have publicly expressed concern that the more than three dozen strict immigration bills before the legislature will discourage business development. Among them is a measure that would allow public elementary schools to demand proof of citizenship from children.

In Mississippi, the Republican-controlled Senate and Democrat-controlled House are headed for a showdown over provisions in their two bills. The Senate passed an Arizona-style bill this month, but the House version deletes a provision that would allow citizens to sue law enforcement officials who fail to enforce restrictions.

Law enforcement officials there have questioned how practically they would be able to uphold all the provisions of the measure, which would require local police to become much more involved with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.

"Many states are facing dire fiscal situations, trying to solve state budgets and create jobs," said Vivek Malhotra, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees the Arizona law and others like it as unfair and unconstitutional. "Enforcing a restrictive immigration measure is expensive."

South Carolina might be on the fastest track, buoyed by new Republican Gov. Nikki Haley, who has said she is committed to cracking down on illegal immigrants. Among the four bills being circulated is one that, as in Arizona's measure, would require immigrants to carry immigration documents with them at all times. Police could demand the documents during traffic stops.

Legislative leaders in South Carolina are being pressed to explain how the state will come up with the resources to pay for enforcement, but advocates say they are determined to push for new laws.

"Illegals are ruining our state. They take away our resources," said local activist Roan Garcia-Quintana, a Cuban American and executive director of the Americans Have Had Enough Coalition. "We don't care what other states do."

Arizona's Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, considered the nation's toughest anti-illegal-immigration measure, was signed into law in April. It sparked street protests, ignited a national debate over immigration issues and triggered a legal challenge from the Obama administration's Justice Department, which is arguing that federal law should preempt state immigration laws.

The controversy has also cost Arizona, which has seen conventions canceled and overall tourism decline. One study, by the liberal-leaning Center for American Progress, reported that boycotts could end up costing Arizona upwards of $250 million in tax revenue, wages and visitor expenditures, a figure some state and business leaders have disputed as high.

Virtually every state is considering some form of legislation affecting immigration, and last year state legislatures enacted an unprecedented number of immigration laws and resolutions, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In some cases, lawmakers are advocating legislation that includes a path to citizenship and amnesty provisions for those already here, while conservatives favor more restrictive policies, including deportation.

There could be a political downside to enacting tougher laws headed into the 2012 presidential election.

At a recent conference organized by the new Hispanic Leadership Network, former Florida governor Jeb Bush (R), who has criticized the Arizona law, noted the importance of Latino voters.

"Hispanics will be the swing voters as they are today in the swing states." Bush said. "If you want to elect a center-right president of the United States, it seems to me you should be concerned about places like New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Florida, Texas, places where but for the Hispanic vote, elections are won and lost."

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