WASHINGTON — Even as the U.S. Senate's attempts at crafting an immigration policy unraveled last month, state legislatures, especially in the South, remained resolved to take matters into their own hands.
In Georgia such efforts have been piecemeal and include laws like state Senate Bill 529, which passed last year and went into effect this month. The law includes having jails check the citizenship of people booked on felony or DUI charges and require residents to present government-issued identification before obtaining such benefits as Medicaid, among other provisions.
"What we tried to do was close down any government service that we could legally close down," said state Sen. Seth Harp, R-Midland. "I don't know that we as a state can do much more. We've done all that we can legally do. Immigration has always been a federal question. The federal government needs to step up."
State lawmakers in Georgia, throughout the South and across the nation express similar frustration as they now face the task of putting forth additional legislation aimed at staunching the flow of illegal immigrants into their communities.As of April this year, state lawmakers across the country proposed some 1,169 immigration-related bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
In Georgia, in addition to Senate Bill 529, that has also meant measures that make it more difficult for illegal immigrants to get driver's licenses.
Such legislative inconsistencies, legal and policy experts said, will likely result in myriad courtroom challenges and a scattershot approach toward putting those laws into effect.
"The pressure is even greater now on states and cities since they feel Congress is not going to do anything," said Stephen Yale-Loehr, professor of immigration law at Cornell University.
The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's New Orleans office has also seen an increase in the number of local police and sheriff departments in the South applying for permission to pursue such crimes as smuggling illegal immigrants into the country, said department spokesman Temple Black.
Meanwhile, locally, in the statehouse and in Washington, Georgia lawmakers are trying to figure out how to craft measures that satisfy both voters back home and the letter of the law.
Those efforts have been met with mixed response.
GOP faithful booed Sen. Saxby Chambliss at a state party convention in May and both Chambliss and Sen. Johnny Isakson were roundly criticized on conservative radio programs for helping author a White House-backed immigration reform bill.
Both men quickly changed positions and voted to help defeat the measure.
"Senator Isakson and I participated in the process early on because we wanted to ensure that our views and concerns were expressed and that, first and foremost, the border security triggers were included in the bill," Chambliss said right after the vote. "... Due to the tremendous response from Georgians, Senator Isakson and I communicated to President Bush that Congress must pass, and he should sign, a supplemental appropriations bill to fully fund the necessary expenditures to secure our borders first and separately from larger immigration reform legislation."