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States and Towns Attempt to Draw The Line on Illegal Immigration

As immigration legislation stalls in a divided Congress, states and towns across the nation are taking matters into their own hands, pursuing a range of measures aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants.

Driven in part by election-year pressures, politicians from Massachusetts to California are drawing up laws and ordinances to limit illegal immigrants' access to jobs, housing and government services. The officials argue that illegal residents are overburdening local schools and hospitals and straining public finances.

This year, more than 500 pieces of immigration-related legislation have been introduced in state legislatures, and 57 of them have been enacted in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. In April, Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, a Republican, signed into law a bill that will restrict public benefits and certain employment rights for illegal immigrants, starting next year. On Monday, Colorado legislators passed similar measures.
[Acting Locally]

Last month, several Pennsylvania legislators introduced a package of bills that would, among other things, prohibit public spending on services or benefits for illegal immigrants. Several Pennsylvania towns are considering local sanctions against landlords that rent to or businesses that employ such immigrants.

In Idaho, home to an estimated 19,000 illegal immigrants -- many employed in meatpacking and construction -- Canyon County filed a racketeering lawsuit last year against agribusiness companies and other employers accused of hiring them. The suit sought to recover money the county said it spent on services for the immigrants. After a federal judge threw out the case, county commissioners voted earlier this year to appeal the ruling.

Even towns with relatively few immigrants are drafting pre-emptive measures. Officials in Sandwich, Mass., a Cape Cod community of 24,000, where immigrants account for just 3% of the population, endorsed a motion this week to declare the town "not a sanctuary for illegal aliens" and to impose a $1,000 fine on businesses for each undocumented immigrant they hire.

The grass-roots initiatives, which cut across party lines, come amid a standoff between the House and Senate over differing versions of an immigration bill. The House version calls for beefing up border enforcement and denying amnesty to illegal immigrants already in the U.S.; the Senate version would put millions of illegals on the path to citizenship. A compromise is considered unlikely this year.

Some of the state and local initiatives may run afoul of federal law and face legal challenges from immigrant-advocacy groups. "These local measures are couched as rental or trespassing laws," says Maria Blanco, an attorney at the Lawyers' Committee for Civil Rights in San Francisco. "The bottom line is their motivation is to control immigration, and that is within federal purview."

As more illegal immigrants journey beyond traditional gateways like the Southwest and California to settle in states like Massachusetts and Georgia, local initiatives to crack down on them are springing up in small towns and suburbs thousands of miles from the U.S.-Mexico border. In many of those areas, the local impact of the influx is more noticeable than in the urban centers or agricultural regions where illegal immigration has long been a fact of life.

In the northeastern Pennsylvania town of Hazleton, population 31,000, Mayor Louis Barletta introduced a proposal last month that calls for revoking permits granted to businesses that employ illegal immigrants, imposing fines on landlords who rent to them and making English the city's official language. The city council has given preliminary approval to the initiative, and it is expected to pass this week.

"We should be using tax dollars on legal taxpayers, not on illegal aliens," says Mr. Barletta, a Republican, who has eliminated a $1.2 million deficit he inherited on taking office in 2000.

Mr. Barletta, who says he doesn't know how many of his town's fast-growing Hispanic community might be illegal immigrants, says the last straw for him was the murder of a 29-year-old Hazleton resident in May. The four suspects in custody are illegal immigrants, he says. "Our police department worked 36 hours to apprehend these individuals. We had hundreds of hours of overtime," he adds.

Measures Spreading

Inspired by Hazleton, other nearby towns are considering similar measures. In recent years, those towns, built by Polish, Irish and Italian immigrants, have seen an influx of Mexicans, Dominicans and other Latin Americans.

At the state level, the Pennsylvania Legislature plans to hold hearings later this summer on a package of bills dubbed "National Security Begins at Home." In addition to barring state spending on health care, education and other services for illegal immigrants, the legislation would allow law-enforcement spending on illegal immigrants to be billed to the immigrant's country of origin.

"The federal government is refusing to take responsibility, so we have to protect our state borders," says state Rep. Tom Yewcic, a Democrat and supporter of the package.

Until recently, the issue of illegal immigration has popped up only sporadically at the state level, with the most famous case being California's proposition 187 to deny services to illegal immigrants. It was passed in 1994 and ruled unconstitutional four years later. But the latest initiatives signal that the immigration debate has taken on a new fervor and divisiveness.

The measures appeal to residents who feel illegal immigrants are overtaxing local schools and other public services and taking unfair advantage of legitimate taxpayers. "There are flashpoints that feed into the average person's fears," says Michael Manning, a priest in San Bernardino, Calif., about 65 miles east of Los Angeles, where a petition that would ban renting houses to illegal immigrants and punish their employers led to a city council showdown.

Efforts to get the measure on the local ballot consumed the cash-strapped town for months. Late last month, a judge ruled that the local anti-illegal-immigration group that sponsored the initiative hadn't collected enough signatures to hold a city vote.

Save Our State founder Joseph Turner, who mounted the petition drive, said that he wouldn't make another attempt to introduce the measure. He says his mission had succeeded in spurring other towns to draft policies against illegal immigrants.

Indeed, Mr. Barletta, the mayor of Hazleton, Pa., says his own proposal was inspired by the San Bernardino initiative. "I took language from [San Bernardino] and modified it for our situation," he says.

Hazleton's measure, in turn, inspired the mayor of Avon Park, Fla., a small town in the state's citrus region, to draft a similar ordinance, which is expected to be adopted later this month.

In Massachusetts, Brazilian immigrants, many of them illegal, are changing the face of many towns. The immigration debate has taken center stage in the gubernatorial race, with Gov. Mitt Romney proposing that state troopers enforce immigration law. Legislators also proposed a hotline for callers to report employers of suspected illegal immigrants.

Strategy of the Day

"It's the political strategy of the day to beat up and scapegoat immigrants," said Ali Noorani, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition. "You have politicians of all stripes capitalizing on the fear."

Some of the measures are already facing tough court challenges. In Arizona, a state in the vanguard of anti-illegal-immigration legislation, several groups are seeking to overturn provisions of Proposition 200, a law passed in 2004 that denies some government benefits to illegal immigrants and requires people to show identification before casting a vote.

Last month, the Colorado Supreme Court, on technical grounds, disqualified a petition for a November ballot initiative that would have asked the state's voters to bar illegal immigrants from receiving state services. Undeterred, the state's Republican governor, Bill Owens, called a special legislative session to tackle illegal immigration.

Late Monday, Colorado lawmakers ended the five-day special session by passing legislation that would deny most state benefits to illegal immigrants 18 years or older, and require those applying for or renewing benefits to prove legal residency.

Many Colorado Democrats who supported the bills described them as the toughest in the nation, but Republicans said they didn't go far enough. Sen. Dan Grossman, one of four Democrats who voted against the package, said: "I don't think the poor people of the state of Colorado or businesses of the state of Colorado should have to pay because we want to play politics with immigration."

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