Illegal workers, employers, being pressured by state and local legal action

The Wall Street Journal this morning (subscription required) reported on activity in many states to put pressure on illegal workers and their employers. This activity is being fanned directly as a result of Congress’ failure to pass a reform law. The article cites instances in CA, CO, GA, MA and PA.

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.

I have posted before on the Georgia law.

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.

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.”

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. 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.

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.

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.

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