States Taking Immigration Reform Into Their Own Hands
Failure of the U.S. Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration laws is expected to accelerate efforts by state and local governments to take matters into their own hands by considering a record number of proposals targeting illegal immigrants.
U.S. Senators voted 46 to 53 against a procedural motion on June 28 to move toward a final vote on the bill (S. 1639), effectively killing federal action on immigration until after the 2008 elections.
As of May, at least 1,100 immigration bills had been submitted by lawmakers around the country, more than double last year's record total, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Many have fallen by the wayside but others have made their way into law, underscoring the public's growing frustration over federal inaction.
NAHB has partnered with the National Chamber Litigation Center to address the constitutionality of these state laws.
Now taking effect, Georgia’s new immigration law (SB 529) is considered the most stringent statute of its kind anywhere in the country. Under its provisions, state and local government agencies are required to verify the legal residency of benefit recipients, and many employers will have to do the same whenever they make a hiring decision. And the state’s law enforcement officers have been given the authority to crack down on human trafficking and fake documents.
In short, Georgia’s law touches every facet of state policy relating to illegal immigrants. Oklahoma and Colorado have both enacted laws with some similar provisions, and the question now is how many states will follow.
In the meantime, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is litigating Georgia's law as well as laws in Colorado and Louisiana, claiming that they are unconstitutional, and all of the laws passed in the states will have to endure tests within the courts.
Examples of other state efforts:
- Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano (D) signed a bill (HB 2779) that prohibits people from hiring illegal immigrants and requires businesses to verify applicants' employment eligibility. Employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers will have their business licenses suspended. A second offense, according to the governor’s office, can result in the “business death penalty” — permanent revocation of an employer’s licenses to do business in Arizona.
Napolitano acknowledged that there are defects in the bill that the legislature needs to address and she said she is willing to call a special session if that’s what it takes. For instance, under the business revocation provision, which her office calls “overbroad,” a business with multiple locations could see its entire operations shut down based on an infraction that occurred at a single location.
“Immigration is a federal responsibility, but I signed HB 2779 because it is now abundantly clear that Congress finds itself incapable of coping with the comprehensive immigration reforms our country needs,” wrote Napolitano. “I signed it, too, out of the realization that the flow of illegal immigration into our state is due to the constant demand of some employers for cheap, undocumented labor.”
The governor added that, “We must not harm legitimate Arizona employers and employees as we seek to curb illegal employment practices,” and she voiced confidence that the bill’s many shortcomings can be corrected before it takes effect next January.
- Arkansas, Colorado, Hawaii, Tennessee and West Virginia are in the process of enacting legislation to force employers to verify their workers' legal status, according to NCSL.
- The Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, signed by Gov. Brad Henry (D), restricts illegal immigrants' access to all forms of official identification, bars them from receiving public assistance and fines employers who hire them.
- Texas legislators introduced bill after bill to place new restrictions on illegal immigrants, only to see the measures stall after facing opposition from the business community.
- Michigan lawmakers considered stripping health and welfare benefits from undocumented immigrants.
- Virginia’s House of Delegates approved a proposal to strip charities and other organizations of state and local funding if any of the money is used to provide services to immigrants who are in the country illegally.
- Maryland lawmakers defeated a proposal that would have let illegal immigrants pay in-state college tuition.
- Missouri’s House defeated a bill that would force employers to verify the status of workers due to concerns about its impact on business.
- Oregon’s legislature introduced a record-high 45 immigration-related bills in the 2007 session.
Cities and towns also have hopped on the immigration bandwagon.
Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, drew national attention by enacting an ordinance that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants; the ban is being challenged in court. The town council of another Texas community — Oak Point, northwest of Dallas — narrowly approved a resolution declaring English the official language.
The most famous example is Hazelton, Pa., which passed a law last year penalizing businesses for hiring illegal immigrants and landlords that rent to them. The Pennsylvania town is now facing a court battle with the American Civil Liberties Union. Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, also drew national attention by enacting similar legislation, which is currently being challenged in court.
This week, the elected supervisors for Virginia's Prince William County are expected to approve a law requiring police to check the residency status of people they stop at schools and county agencies, even libraries.
Other states and municipalities have displayed a more welcoming attitude. In the Cuban-American stronghold of South Florida, two cities and Miami-Dade County have embraced resolutions calling on the federal government to stop deporting undocumented immigrants.
Thirty-two cities and counties in 16 states — including San Francisco; Austin, Texas; Houston and Seattle — have adopted "sanctuary policies" protecting undocumented immigrants, according to the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress.
Until recently, many state and local policy makers took the position that the immigration dilemma could be resolved only at the federal level. Few are making that argument anymore.
For more information, e-mail Carlos Gutierrez at NAHB, or call him at 800-368-5242 x9094.