States' immigration efforts fizzle

By Laura Wides-Munoz

Associated Press

Published: Monday, May 23 2011 8:10 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this May 13, 2011 file photo, protestor shout and hold signs outside the Georgia State Capitol after Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed an Immigration Bill in Atlanta. Nearly every state in the union decided to tackle immigration on its own this year in the absence of any federal action on the issue. But an Associated Press review of the data found that as of Wednesday nearly all of the punitive measures failed. (AP Photo/Tami Chappell, File)

Associated Press

MIAMI — Nearly every state in the union tried to tackle immigration on its own this year in the absence of any congressional movement on the matter, and more than half considered Arizona-style enforcement measures, up from just six in 2010.

But an Associated Press review found that in legislature after legislature, nearly all the most punitive measures failed.

What had passed as of Monday mostly reinforced current federal law, though a small number of states actually passed legislation that was helpful to illegal immigrants.

Many measures were set aside so lawmakers could focus on pressing budget crises, but immigrants have also developed more sophisticated lobbying efforts, and business owners came out strongly against tougher sanctions. Some worried about losing sources of labor and gaining extra paperwork. Others feared tourism boycotts like the one organized against Arizona.

Early in the year, high unemployment, a slew of newly Republican-dominated legislatures and nationwide frustration over the failure by the White House or Congress to address the problem suggested Arizona's law would be copied.

That law makes it a state crime for an illegal immigrant to work, penalizes employers who hire them and encourages local authorities to turn over illegal immigrants to federal authorities, among other measures. An appellate court has blocked provisions that require immigrants carry visa documents and allow police broad leeway to question the immigration status of those they suspect are in the country illegally.

Louisiana State Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican, said federal inaction prompted his interest in state laws on immigration.

"I'm just trying to give them a little Taser move in the right direction," he said.

But Harrison's bill has yet to move out of committee, and most of the others failed, as did most of the proposals requiring businesses to use the federal government's electronic E-verify system to check the eligibility of new hires. Only a few states made any serious attempt to crack down on employers.

So far, only Georgia and Utah have passed comprehensive bills. South Carolina and Alabama are still considering them. Utah's law includes a provision to allow illegal immigrants to work in the state, and the American Civil Liberties Union has already sued Utah over the law's enforcement provisions.

Georgia was the shining example for those hoping to step up enforcement and the closest to Arizona. Its new law allows local officers to check the immigration status of a suspect who can't produce an accepted form of ID. It also includes a provision requiring employers with more than 10 employees to use E-Verify by July 2013, similar to a 2007 law Arizona. Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal signed the bill earlier this month and opponents say they plan to sue the state.

Following the failure of the recent Dream Act in Washington — which would have provided a path to legalization for qualified illegal immigrant students and other young adults — several states adopted legislation this session that helps illegal immigrant students. Maryland approved in-state college tuition for illegal immigrants, Illinois is likely to set up a private scholarship fund for them, and Connecticut expanded in-state tuition for graduate school. An in-state tuition bill in Oregon passed the Senate but has yet to reach the House floor.

Arizona lawmakers ordered school districts to report students' residency, but that was geared toward keeping children who live across the Mexican border from enrolling in Arizona schools.

Only Indiana passed a law to prohibit in-state tuition for those in the country illegally, a largely symbolic move.

Most legislation never gets out of committee, and compromise is always key.

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