PROVIDENCE, R.I. – Rhode Island's closest international border is the Canadian one, about 200 miles to the north. About 11 percent of the 1 million people who live here were born in another country, and estimates say that a third or fewer of those people are in the country illegally.
But Gov. Don Carcieri says illegal immigration has become such a problem — and cost the state so much money at a time that it is grappling with a $568 million budget deficit — that last month he signed an executive order directing state police to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Since then, church leaders and some of Carcieri's own advisers have urged him to rescind it or said it was creating a climate of fear among all minorities. Angry protesters stormed the office of Carcieri's top policy aide. Local police departments are divided, with some saying they'll enforce the order and the chief in Providence saying it's destructive to the bonds of trust officers have built with communities.
"It's very difficult to think about what drove the governor to do this. I'm amazed," said Jaime Aguayo, a member of the governor's own Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which the governor did not consult before signing the order. Some members have threatened to quit in protest.
Carcieri's office has not studied whether the measure would save or cost the state money, although the governor said he believes the cost will be minimal. In Prince William County, Va., where police began enforcing immigration laws last month, the price tag has risen to an estimated $6.9 million in the coming budget year. That includes a higher-than-expected amount to pay for overcrowding at the county jail due to the crackdown.
Carcieri's order directs state police to enter an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow them to enforce immigration law, which is similar to agreements made by various state and local law enforcement agencies in 17 other states. It also requires the executive branch and companies that do business with the state to use a federal computer system to verify the immigration status of new hires.
The governor also supports bills pending in the legislature that would make English the official state language and make it a felony to rent a home to an illegal immigrant.
After meeting with concerned clergy Friday, Carcieri refused to rescind his order. But he agreed to create an advisory committee that will monitor how it is enforced.
The state's budget deficit for next fiscal year is about 10 percent of expected state spending, and the governor and lawmakers have been cutting funding to education, social services and aid to local communities to close the gap. So it's not surprising that illegal immigrants are now in the governor's sights, said Darrell West, a political scientist and pollster at Brown University.
"Illegal immigrants are a convenient target because they don't vote, they tend to be poor and they don't have a lot of political power," West said.
Carcieri has denied the timing of his order was politically motivated. He faults Congress for failing to reform national immigration policy and said the state government must enforce the law.
Democratic Rep. Jon Brien backs Carcieri's order and has submitted legislation to take it a step further by requiring every private employer in the state to use the same federal database to check the immigration status of their new hires.
"The workforce in the state of Rhode Island should be a legal one," Brien said. "It puts everyone in the state on a level playing field."
The state's agreement to enforce immigration law is still being worked out, but State Police Maj. Steven O'Donnell said once in place, it will allow officers to inquire more deeply about the immigration status of anyone they contact if there's a reason to think they are here illegally. That could be people who are arrested, motorists stopped by police or witnesses who report crimes.
Critics warn of racial profiling, and fear the measure will make illegal immigrants scared to contact police if they are a victim of crime or witness one happening.
Juan Garcia, who works with immigrants at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Providence, held a meeting about Carcieri's order shortly after it was signed. Anxious people wanted to know if they could still renew their driver's licenses or pay state payroll taxes without being identified as illegal immigrants, he said.