States Poised to Break Record on Immigration Measures

It's only the beginning of January, and state legislators have already introduced more than 600 immigration measures and resolutions -- about 50 percent of the number that was introduced in all of 2010, the National Conference of State Legislatures told Fox News Latino.

That announcements comes a few weeks after the NCLS released a report revealing that last year, states enacted a record number -- 346 -- of bills and resolutions on immigration issues. They saw 1,400 immigration bills and resolutions introduced in 2010, says Ann Morse, program director for NCLS.

NCLS says that every state that had a regular legislative session last year considered immigration measures, a trend that seems on course to be repeated this year, when every day one or more states seems to be taking up the issue. More than a dozen states are not even in session yet, Morse says.

Experts on immigration say the trend reflects mounting frustration among state officials and residents over illegal immigration, and the failure of Congress and the White House to properly address it.

"There's a profusion of these activities, state bills [on immigration], that we haven't seen before," said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, a Washington D.C. think tank that favors strict immigration policies. "Illegal immigration has reached a large magnitude, and it's also spread."

Indeed, Arizona became the symbol of state-level frustration over the nation's broken immigration system when it enacted a law last year authorizing local police to enforce immigration law and making it a crime to be in the state as an illegal immigrant. Arizona's law is facing several court challenges regarding constitutionality. Nonetheless, legislators in numerous other states have introduced -- or announced intentions to introduce -- Arizona-style laws aimed at driving illegal immigrants out.

Even states such as Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky and Virginia, for instance -- normally not thought of as places where illegal immigration would be an issue -- are considering bills that seek to crack down on undocumented immigrants. More than a dozen are considering bills that would deny automatic citizenship to U.S.-born babies of undocumented immigrants, a move that opponents of the measure say violates the 14th Amendment.

"Every state is now a border state, really," said Krikorian. "Every town is a border town in a way that wasn't true 15 or even 10 years ago, when it was mostly an issue in places like California. Now illegal immigration is everywhere. Georgia and North Carolina are even in the top 10 of states with the most illegal immigrants."

Efforts to pass immigration bills failed during the Bush Administration, when it seemed that a bill by Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, and late Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, stood a chance of becoming law. But despite a hard push by President Bush, who lobbied for the bill through telephone calls to members of both parties, and a flurry of meetings between Republicans and Democrats in Congress, the bill failed.

Democrats wanted a bill that would include a pathway to legalization for undocumented immigrants who qualified under a certain set of criteria, but many Republicans objected, saying it was a form of amnesty and a reward for lawbreakers that would only generate more illegal immigration.

President Obama campaigned on a pledge to push for comprehensive immigration reform that would both strengthen border security and interior enforcement, and provide ways for eligible undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

Advocates for a loosening of restrictions for illegal immigrants thought they stood their best chance, given a Democrat in the White House, and Democrats in control of the House and Senate. But efforts to pass comprehensive immigration reform failed even under those circumstances.

Indeed, a last-ditch attempt to pass a bill, the DREAM Act, which would have allowed undocumented youth to obtain conditional legal status if they met a strict set of criteria -- including good moral character, having come to the United States before the age of 16, and two years in college or the military -- passed the House but failed to get enough votes in the Senate to go to the floor for a vote.

"State legislatures will continue to step forward and create local solutions without comprehensive immigration legislation," said NCSL Executive Director William Pound in a recent statement. "In the long term, immigration policy requires federal reform."

Republicans, who now are in control of the House, vow to push for laws that will emphasize enforcement, and not grant breaks to the undocumented. They say that at a time of financial crisis in the United States, when millions of Americans are unemployed, the United States must crack down on illegal immigrants, who they say take jobs away from U.S. citizens and legal immigrants, and are a drain on the economy through their use of public services.

But such bills are likely to face resistance in the Senate, where the Democrats still have a majority.

Many on all sides of the immigration debate believe a congressional solution to immigration will be hard to come by with the polarization between the parties, and even within the GOP, where some moderates are open to a pathway to legalization, but conservatives are firmly opposed to it.

"I don't see much action on immigration at all" at the congressional level, Krikorian said. "There'll be hearings, enforcement-related inquiries, but the action is happening at the state level, and it will continue. Some states may wait to see what the courts say about Arizona."

For now, seeing no federal solution in the short-term, state officials are introducing bills that would allow them to take immigration into their own hands, and that worries proponents of plans that would help the undocumented adjust their immigration status. They say such bills increase tensions among residents and encourage racial and ethnic profiling. They argue that the economy is helped by undocumented workers who do jobs they say Americans won't do, even in a time of high unemployment.

"We're just as frustrated that the government has failed in its responsibility on immigration," said Elena Lacayo, immigration field coordinator for the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group in Washington D.C. "But these piecemeal approaches, states and local jurisdictions just taking matters into their own hands is not the solution."

"These [state] bills are not constitutional because they usurp powers that belong to the federal government in terms of enforcing immigration laws," Lacayo said. "They're also very costly to the states in terms of litigation, defending these unconstitional bills before the courts. We can't have a patchwork of laws and regulations that don't match one another."

An estimated 11 million people are believed to be living in the United States illegally.

To reach Elizabeth Llorente, email her at 

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