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With Congress in a stalemate, state legislatures take on immigration

WASHINGTON — With immigration on the back burner in Congress, state legislatures are pressing ahead with their own solutions, according to a report that provides an overview of the more than 1,100 immigration-related bills introduced this year in 44 states.

Twenty-six states have imposed new laws, ranging from employee verification requirements in Mississippi to toughened penalties against human trafficking in New Mexico. A total of 44 laws and resolutions emerged from state legislatures this year.

The study by the National Conference of State Legislatures indicates that states show little inclination of slowing down after seizing the initiative on immigration last year when Congress abandoned an immigration overhaul pushed by President Bush.

Experts say major immigration bills probably will remain sidelined in Congress until a new president takes office in January.

The three main candidates — Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, and Republican John McCain of Arizona — previously have embraced key elements of Bush's plan, including a guest-worker program, legalization of undocumented workers and toughened enforcement. Since becoming a candidate, however, McCain has retooled his position to say that the border should first be secured before legalization provisions go into effect.

As of March 31, a total of 1,106 bills had been introduced in 44 states that have held legislative sessions this year. That pattern was comparable to last year, when 1,169 bills and resolutions had been introduced by April 13, 2007. At this time last year, 18 states had enacted 57 laws related to immigrants and immigration.

Texas, Nevada, North Dakota and Montana didn't have sessions this year. North Carolina's legislature won't convene until May 5.

Immigration legislation and policies at the state level encompassed all dimensions of the debate, with pro-immigration views as well as measures reflecting demands to limit immigrant access to services and employment.

"There is no one-size-fits-all solution," said Dirk Hegen, a Washington-based policy associate for the conference. "There is a continuum between the immigrant integration and the enforcement side. You'll find those two sides and everything in between."

Nearly 180 bills in 31 states dealt with employment, including employer sanctions for hiring unauthorized workers. Other bills sought to require employers to use the federal government's electronic verification system to ensure jobs are going to legal workers.

The Department of Homeland Security's push for states to comply with the REAL ID Act — which requires tamper-proof driver's licenses — generated stepped-up debate over illegal immigrant drivers. Eighty-five bills in 35 states dealt with licenses and identification, including measures requiring proof of legal status to obtain licenses.

Other restrictive measures toughed requirements for health benefits, empowered local law enforcement officers to enforce federal immigration laws and imposed financial penalties on "sanctuary cities" considered to have tolerant policies toward illegal immigrants.

Some bills bar illegal immigrants from attending college, but others offer assistance for learning English. Others sought to give immigrants and refugees greater access to health care.

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