States Weigh Immigration Controls (By Dennis Cauchon in U.S.A. Today)

January 26, 2006: States Weigh Immigration Controls (By Dennis Cauchon in U.S.A. Today)

States weigh immigration controls
By Dennis Cauchon, USA TODAY

Frustrated by slow action in Congress, state legislatures are debating whether to increase border enforcement at their own expense, fine employers who use undocumented workers and get local police involved in deporting them.

It's unclear how far the proposals would go because, like Congress, legislatures are divided on what to do about the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants who provide a low-wage workforce in the USA. Federal law may limit state power on actions such as penalizing employers, says Ann Morse, an analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. (Related: City puts itself on immigration watch)

ILLEGAL IMMIGRANTS: (Undocumented immigrants as a percentage of state population)

State % of population
Ariz. 8.70%
Calif. 6.69%
Tex. 6.22%
Nev. 5.35%
Wash., D.C. 4.97%
Colo. 4.89%
Fla. 4.89%
Md. 4.05%
N.J. 4.02%
N.M. 3.68%
Wash. 3.63%
N.C. 3.51%
Mass. 3.51%
Ore. 3.48%
N.Y. 3.38%
Del. 3.31%
Ill. 3.15%
Va. 3.02%
Utah 2.93%
Kan. 2.56%
Ga. 2.55%
R.I. 2.54%
Iowa 2.37%
Wisc. 2.27%
Hawaii 2.18%
Tenn. 2.12%
Conn. 2.00%
Okla. 1.99%
Idaho 1.97%
Neb. 1.57%
Minn. 1.37%
Mich. 1.24%
Mo. 1.22%
Ind. 1.12%
Ohio 1.09%
Pa. 1.01%
Ark. 1.00%
Wyo. 0.99%
Miss. 0.95%
Vt. 0.80%
N.D. 0.79%
Alaska 0.76%
Ky. 0.66%
S.C. 0.66%
S.D. 0.65%
La. 0.61%
Ala. 0.61%
Mont. 0.54%
N.H. 0.38%
Maine 0.38%
West Va. 0.28%
U.S. 3.51%
Source: Pew Hispanic Center

Immigration policy is one of the hottest issues as 37 legislatures convene this month. Last year, states considered 300 immigration laws and approved 40. That number is expected to rise this year, Morse says.

The immigration proposals are part of a larger trend of states getting involved in traditionally federal issues ranging from pollution control to prescription drug prices. Congress is considering changes to immigration policies a border fence, a guest worker program but it's uncertain whether action will be taken this year.

Among the state proposals:

Arizona is debating installing a radar system and video cameras along the state's 340-mile border with Mexico. The proposed $50 million system would alert law enforcement when crossings occur.

About a dozen states are considering employer sanctions, Morse says. Kentucky's proposal, for example, would fine employers up to $5,000 for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.

Border states and a few others are ready to spend their own money on immigration enforcement. State and local police would be asked to check the residency status of people arrested or given traffic tickets under some proposals.

Away from the Mexican border, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty wants to create a team of 10 state agents to police undocumented immigrants, charging them with state crimes such as identity theft or turning them over to federal authorities. “The federal government hasn't been doing a good job, so states have to play a role,” says Pawlenty, a Republican.

Flavia Jimenez, a policy analyst at the National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights group, says the legislative activity “reflects real concern about the failure of Congress to pass real immigration reform.” She says the job is best left to the federal government, and states will face a costly task if police get involved in determining people's immigration status.