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Tue, Jan. 28

Immigration Day 7: Congress gridlock incites states to act on illegal immigration



Although an immigration deal collapsed in the U.S. Senate earlier in the year, leaving virtually no chance that the 110th Congress will approve a final bill, states across the country, including Arizona, are aggressively pursuing policies to corral the illegal-alien crisis.

The U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service estimates that 12 million undocumented workers live in the United States illegally. However, many of them entered the country legally and overstayed their visas.

Congress' immigration bill would have allowed millions of illegal immigrants to remain in the country, receive legal status and eventually earn citizenship; provide $4.4 billion in mandatory spending for border security and enforcement; and create a new temporary worker program.

But with the Bush administration and Congress gridlocked on an immigration policy overhaul, states are enacting laws to fit their own needs, creating inconsistent enforcement of federal immigration law.

In mid-October, the Washington Post reported that during the first half of 2007 state legislatures introduced no fewer than 1,404 pieces of immigration-related legislation, with 182 bills becoming law in 43 states.

The National Conference of State Legislatures reports that figure is more than double the number of immigration-related state laws ratified in all of 2006.

Voters in white working-class districts in Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina and New Hampshire have expressed anger to their legislators about the belief that illegal immigrants are unfairly consuming government benefits, a fear that Democratic and Republican pollsters say stems more from economic uncertainty than a clash of cultures.

In Oklahoma, for example, the state legislature has enacted a law making it criminal to transport or harbor illegal immigrants. The legislature also has approved laws stripping illegal immigrants of any right to receive most health care, welfare, scholarships or other government assistance; penalizing employers who hire illegals; and forcing businesses to verify the legal status of new hires.

Voters in restrictive states like Oklahoma believe that benefits such as limited medical coverage, in-state university tuition and driver's licenses should not go to illegal immigrants.

In early November, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a candidate for the 2008 presidential election who has become a leading Republican proponent of comprehensive immigration reform, said tightening border security and increasing enforcement there should be the nation's primary goal.

McCain had favored a guest-worker program that sought to legalize the citizenship of people who were here in the United States illegally. But this type of comprehensive plan, which failed to move through Congress this summer, caused friction among Republicans.

A strong anti-amnesty grassroots movement has vehemently opposed undocumented immigrants gaining legal status, even if they had to earn it.

In April, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., helped write a draft White House proposal on immigration reform that recommended a $2,000 fine every three years and a $1,500 processing fee each time an illegal immigrant applied to renew a three-year visa. An illegal wanting to become a citizen would pay a $10,000 fine and have to apply for citizenship through normal channels from their native country.

Feeling the heat from the anti-amnesty crowd, McCain in October skipped a Senate vote on a bill he co-sponsored that would have let some undocumented immigrants coming to the U.S. as children earn legal status.

Despite his support for the bill, McCain said he knew it would fail and does not anticipate Congress approving any similar legislation until 2009.

Instead, McCain has proposed that the governors of Arizona, California, New Mexico and Texas ensure the border is secure before Congress can move forward with other immigration-related reforms, such as the temporary-worker program.

In early November, Congress agreed to spend $1.2 billion for 700 miles of 15-foot-high fencing at the Texas-Mexico border, including parts of the Rio Grande Valley along the southeastern tip of Texas, in hopes of keeping out illegal immigrants and drug smugglers.

The controversial plan calls for 370 miles of real fence and 330 miles of virtual fences that use cameras, underground sensors, radar and other technology to monitor trespassers.

With the 2008 presidential election on the horizon, Republicans have put the Democratic Party on the defensive about illegal immigration, saying Democrats need to get tougher.

In response, some Democratic leaders have called for a "mini bill" that emphasizes border control, penalties on businesses that hire illegal immigrants and stronger efforts to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants.

But Democrats, including Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez, D-Ill., who is sponsoring the mini bill, said he will not accept any legislation that does not include a pathway to citizenship for the country's 12 million undocumented workers.

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