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States could follow Arizona on immigration
Updated 12/30/2010 11:43 AM ET
WASHINGTON — Because Congress was unable to pass any kind of immigration legislation this year and the prospects remain dim when the new Congress is sworn in next month, state legislatures will continue to lead the charge on immigration policy in the new year.

For many states, that could mean a crackdown on illegal immigration that mirrors the Arizona law that passed in April and reignited a national immigration debate.

After Republicans made huge gains in statehouses and governor's mansions in the November election, as many as seven states are "likely" to pass an Arizona-style law next year, according to a study by the National Immigration Forum, which opposes such legislation.

Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee all have a combination of legislators and governors supporting the law, the report found.

COMPLETE REPORT: National Immigration Forum ON POLITICS: States look to crack down on illegals STORY: Costa Rica copes with own migrant ills

Arizona's law would require all of the state's law enforcement officers to determine the immigration status of people they've stopped, detained or arrested for another offense if a "reasonable suspicion" exists that they are in the country illegally.

The U.S. Department of Justice sued Arizona, arguing that immigration enforcement was solely a federal responsibility. In July, a federal judge blocked the core aspects of the law, known as S.B. 1070, and the ruling is under appeal.

Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates tighter immigration controls, said many state legislators would rather wait to see how Arizona's law fares in court, a path that could end in the U.S. Supreme Court.

Krikorian said others may plow ahead to draw another Department of Justice lawsuit to test the law before a different federal judge. Such a lawsuit could help politically, he said, as some might hope to recreate Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer's rise in the polls after she signed S.B. 1070 into law.

"If you're a governor or an ambitious state senator forcing the Obama administration to come after you, then it could work," Krikorian said.

Vivek Malhotra, advocacy and policy counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union, said the group is closely monitoring for Arizona-style immigration and is ready to sue to block those laws. He said the rise in anti-immigration legislation in recent years is not surprising.

"Whenever we've had tough economic times, immigrants have become the target for political scapegoating," Malhotra said. "It's easy to blame this population, many of which are not citizens and cannot vote."

Ali Noorani, executive director of the National Immigration Forum, said a few states continue to explore ways to help immigrants integrate.

Officials in California, Illinois, Massachusetts, Utah and Washington have pushed for a variety of measures, such as in-state tuition for illegal immigrants and protections for victims of human trafficking.

Noorani said many of the states cracking down on illegal immigrants overlook the financial benefits of having them, including the taxes they pay and the paychecks they spend in their communities. Arizona lost millions in convention and tourism income because of boycotts after the passage of its immigration law, so he is surprised that more states would follow suit during such difficult economic times.

"I think that the social and economic impact of literally chasing people out of your state is going to be pretty severe," Noorani said.

Georgia state Rep. Matt Ramsey, a Republican from Peachtree City, disagreed, saying the state's estimated 450,000 illegal immigrants cost the state more than $1 billion each year in emergency medical care, K-12 education and jail costs. Ramsey chairs a Republican study group exploring ways to deny public benefits to illegal immigrants and provide law enforcement with all available tools to catch them, including an Arizona-style law.

Georgia has a Republican governor and GOP majorities in both chambers of the state Assembly, making passage of such legislation possible.

Florida state Sen. Mike Bennett, a Republican from Bradenton, also has a favorable environment with Republicans controlling both legislative chambers and the governor's office. Though he filed an Arizona-style bill that would target illegal immigrants committing criminal acts, he said he "cringes" over the idea that such a law could be used to racially profile law-abiding Hispanics.

Bennett said he filed the bill because he was worried that "some crazy would get out too far on this." He said he wanted to control the bill to ensure that only true criminals were targeted by a new law.

"I don't think you should be deported because you were going 10 mph over the speed limit, not if you're paying taxes and you got a job and you're supporting your family," Bennett said.

The question legislators face, he said, is, "How do we differentiate between the good illegal immigrant and the bad illegal immigrant?"

Posted 12/30/2010 12:01 AM ET
Updated 12/30/2010 11:43 AM ET
Two women react to a show of hands of citizens who agree with a speaker who was in favor of implementing a city ordinance against immigrants in Fremont, Neb., on July 27.
By Nati Harnik, AP
Two women react to a show of hands of citizens who agree with a speaker who was in favor of implementing a city ordinance against immigrants in Fremont, Neb., on July 27.