Published December 12, 2016
Across the country legislators and activists are gearing up for what could be a slew of new, strict immigration laws as the Supreme Court seems to be leaning to uphold parts of Arizona's own controversial law.
"We're getting our national network ready to run with the ball, and saturate state legislatures with versions of the law," said William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration. "We believe we can pass it in most states."
That goal may be a stretch, but lawmakers in about a dozen states told The Associated Press they were interested in proposing Arizona-style laws if its key components are upheld by the Supreme Court. A ruling is expected in June on the Department of Justice's appeal that the law conflicts with federal immigration policy.
Dan Stein, president of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said he was encouraged that several justices suggested during Wednesday's oral arguments that they are ready to let Arizona enforce the most controversial part of its law — a requirement that police officers check the immigration status of people they suspect are in the country illegally. Another provision allows suspected undocumented immigrants to be arrested without warrants
"The justices sent a clear signal that there's a huge zone for state action in this area," Stein said. "There will be an enormous amount of energy spent in next few months examining the full range of possibilities."
For starters, a ruling in favor of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 would likely enable Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah to put move forward with comparable measures that were enacted but have been on hold pending the high court's decision.
"If Arizona does very well, we'll do very well," said Alabama Sen. Scott Beason, sponsor of a law that in some respects is tougher than Arizona's. In addition to requiring police to determine citizenship status during traffic stops, it directs government offices to verify legal residency for transactions like obtaining a car license, enrolling a child in school and getting a job.
Lawmakers in such diverse states as Mississippi and Pennsylvania said they would be eager to follow the Arizona/Alabama model if the Supreme Court gives a green light.
"You look at poll after poll after poll, whether they're a business owner or employee or small business owner or executive, the majority of Americans support bills like 1070," said Pennsylvania Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican who chairs the House State Government Committee.
Metcalfe has already introduced a bill that incorporates Arizona's law and is waiting for a favorable Supreme Court ruling to bring it up in his committee.
In Mississippi, a get-tough immigration bill passed the House earlier this year but died in a Senate committee. Its backers plan to try again next year, and hope for a Supreme Court ruling that gives them guidance.
"This just ensures to the taxpayers of Mississippi that when we pass the law, we won't end up in a long court battle," said Republican Rep. Becky Currie.
As in Mississippi, South Dakota lawmakers also have rejected a measure based on the Arizona law, but its sponsor, Republican Rep. Manny Steele of Sioux Falls, says he's ready to try again.
"I would be excited to get another bill going back in there, according to what the Supreme Court decision is," Steele said.
In Rhode Island, Rep. Peter Palumbo said he was pleased by the Supreme Court's apparent support for allowing states to enforce immigration law.
"It's tremendous," said Palumbo, a Democrat who would like to empower the state police to help federal authorities with immigration enforcement.
In several states where neither major party has a monopoly on power — Iowa, Colorado, Montana and Kentucky, among them — lawmakers said the fate of any hardline immigration bill likely will depend on the outcome of state elections in November.
One of Kentucky's leading critics of illegal immigration, Republican Rep. Stan Lee, said an Arizona-style bill has little chance of overcoming staunch opposition from the Democratic majority in the House.
"Even if the Supreme Court upholds all or virtually all of that, I don't expect to pursue any of that type of legislation unless there's a significant change in the makeup of the House," Lee said. "The votes, as I've discovered, just aren't there."
In Minnesota, Republican Rep. Steve Drazkowski said he'll consider proposing a bill modeled in part on the Arizona law but acknowledged that it could well be vetoed by Democratic Gov. Mark Dayton, whose term runs until 2014.
In Kansas, where Republicans dominate, GOP legislators are split over immigration, preventing action both on proposals to crack down on undocumented immigrants and a business-backed program to place some immigrants in hard-to-fill jobs in farming and other sectors.
Among the leaders of the get-tough faction in Kansas is Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a former law professor who helped write the Arizona and Alabama laws. Kobach said the Supreme Court arguments bolstered his view that the most controversial part of the Arizona law — the "show your papers" provision — would withstand a legal challenge.
If the Supreme Court upholds key parts of the law, "it will be a huge green light," he said. "All of the other states will have a blueprint that they can copy."
In Virginia, which already has numerous restrictive immigration laws, Republican Delegate David Albo said there may not be room for many more.
"We're already bumping up against the legal limits of what we're allowed to do," said Albo, author of a law that denies adult illegal immigrants non-emergency public benefits such as food stamps and welfare benefits.
In many states, there is little or no prospect for adopting Arizona-style laws anytime soon. In some cases, such as in Idaho, it's because the agriculture industry worries about losing needed workers; elsewhere it's a question of immigrant-friendly politics.
"I can't envision the state adopting the position that we should be enforcing immigrant laws," said New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, noting that his state has ample law enforcement challenges on its plate already.
In Illinois, which has some of the most immigrant-friendly laws in the nation, Republican Rep. Randy Ramey has tried four times to propose an Arizona-style law but failed to get a measure out of committee. Heartened by the Supreme Court arguments, Ramey said he may try again despite the odds.
"It encourages me, but doesn't mean anything will move here as long as Democrats are in charge," he said. "They'll just laugh at it."
Stands on the issue don't always follow predictable party lines. Republican Govs. Susana Martinez of New Mexico and Brian Sandoval of Nevada — both Hispanics — say Arizona-style laws aren't needed in their states. Hispanics account for 46 percent of the population in New Mexico, the highest proportion of any state.
"Gov. Martinez fully believes that any policies addressing undocumented immigrants have to begin at the federal level," said her spokesman, Greg Blair.
There are an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States. Of that total, roughly 6.1 million are from Mexico, down from nearly 7 million in 2007, according to a Pew Hispanic Center study released Monday. That decline has coincided with a cooling-off of the immigration debate in some states, such as Tennessee.
"It doesn't seem to have the same numbers that were here a couple of years ago," said state Sen. Bill Ketron, a Republican who has sponsored a number of bills targeting undocumented immigrants.
Clarissa Martinez of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights and advocacy organization, predicted that most states — regardless of the Supreme Court's decision — would stay away from Arizona-type laws out of self-interest.
"For most of them, the balance sheets do not add up," she said, referring to the Alabama law that has created burdens for some business and caused farmers to complain about lack of workers to pick their crops.
Vermont, where a growing number of Hispanic migrants work in the dairy industry, is among a handful of states overtly welcoming immigrants regardless of their legal status. Last fall, Gov. Peter Shumlin urged police to "look the other way" when the only legal problem might be an immigration violation.
"Vermont is the antithesis of Arizona," said Rep. Suzi Wizowaty of Burlington, who has backed a bill to require police to follow such policies. "Our goal in Vermont is to be the kind of place that welcomes all kinds of people."
The welcome mat is out in Alaska, also.
"We want more immigrants," said Republican Rep. Paul Seaton. "There just aren't people from here to do the work."
Based on reporting by David Crary of The Associated Press.