WASHINGTON — The collapse of congressional efforts to overhaul the nation's immigration laws is expected to dramatically accelerate an effort by state and local governments to take matters into their own hands to deal with the nation's 12 million illegal immigrants.
The result, advocates on both sides of the issue say, could be a patchwork of laws and ordinances with vastly different approaches, ranging from measures that harshly penalize illegal immigrants and their employers to the spread of "sanctuary cities" that prohibit police from questioning suspects about their immigration status.
"There's going to be a barrage of local laws dealing with immigration policy," said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a leading sponsor of a White House-backed immigration bill that stalled in the Senate this week. "In some areas of the country, it will be sanctuary. In other areas of the country, if you look at someone who looks illegal, you can lose your business license."
Senators voted 46-53 against a procedural motion Thursday to move toward a final vote on the bill, effectively killing — at least for now — a years-long push to repair what's long been assailed as a broken immigration system. The outcome dealt an embarrassing defeat to President Bush, who's made overhauling immigration law his top domestic priority.
Frustrated over what they perceive as federal foot-dragging, state and local governments already have been stepping up with remedies that range from punitive to protective, a trend that's almost certain to escalate in the void Congress left.
"If Congress is going to abdicate its responsibilities, then states and cities are going to jump in," said John Gay, the senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association and the leader of a business coalition that backed the failed Senate bill. "One of the arguments for opposing state and local proposals is that Congress is addressing it. We don't have that anymore."
As of April, state legislators in all 50 states had introduced at least 1,169 bills and resolutions on immigration this year, more than twice the number introduced last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many fell by the wayside but others made their way into law, underscoring the public's growing intolerance of federal inaction.
Oklahoma lawmakers recently enacted a law that cuts off illegal immigrants' access to driver's licenses and many government benefits. A six-month-old Colorado law prevents employers from hiring illegal immigrants and requires them to affirm the legal status of employees.
Cities and towns also have gotten into the act. Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, drew national attention by enacting an ordinance that bans landlords from renting to illegal immigrants; the ban is being challenged in court. The town council of another Texas community — Oak Point, northwest of Dallas — narrowly approved a resolution declaring English the official language.
Other states and municipalities have displayed a more welcoming atmosphere. In the Cuban-American stronghold of South Florida, two cities and Miami-Dade County have embraced resolutions calling on the federal government to stop deporting undocumented immigrants.
Thirty-two cities and counties in 16 states — including San Francisco, Austin, Texas, Houston and Seattle — have adopted "sanctuary policies" protective of undocumented immigrants, according to the Congressional Research Service, a division of the Library of Congress.
With congressional leaders predicting that there'll be no federal action on immigration at least through the rest of Bush's presidency, conservative lawmakers in more than half the states are readying legislation to crack down on illegal immigration and enable local officers to enforce immigration laws.
A group called State Legislators for Legal Immigration announced its creation last month to form "a unified front" against employers who hire illegal immigrants, said its founder, Republican state Rep. Daryl Metcalfe of Cranberry Township, Pa. Legislators from 30 states have joined the organization and will introduce similar bills in an attempt to "shut off the economic faucet" — employment — that draws illegal immigrants to the United States, Metcalfe said.
The Texas legislature considered dozens of bills related to immigration during its recently ended session, but nearly all of them died. But Texas Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who introduced legislation challenging the citizenship rights of children born in the United States to illegal immigrants, said he expected a more receptive mood when Texas lawmakers went back to work in January 2009.
"I can assure you there will be a lot of legislation dealing with illegal aliens in Texas," said Berman.
Many state legislatures are out of session, but Gay expects immigration to emerge in "full force" when they get back to work. He said business groups were monitoring more than 100 bills that would affect business.
Kathleen Walker, a lawyer in El Paso, Texas, and the president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said her organization was braced for a flood of punitive bills in what she called a "knee-jerk" reaction to the Senate's refusal to complete work on the immigration bill. She said the prevailing attitude among state lawmakers now was, "OK, they can't fix it. We will."
(Lesley Clark contributed to this report.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2007