Arizona's hot-button immigration law is on hold, pending court appeals, but its effects are rippling across the country as state legislatures reconfigured by the November elections begin their new sessions.
The disputed Arizona law would allow law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal immigration status from anyone they stop. In July, a U.S. district judge granted the Obama administration's request for an injunction blocking parts of the trailblazing law, which raised many legal questions, including whether local officials can legally enforce federal immigration law and whether such local enforcement could lead to unconstitutional racial profiling.
That hasn't deterred elected officials elsewhere — legislation closely modeled on Arizona's law has been introduced in at least 15 other states since the beginning of the year. (See box below.) And legislators in other states say they're awaiting clarification from the courts before introducing their own measures.
The issue is simple, they say: Illegal immigrants are breaking the law, taking jobs and services from U.S. citizens and legal residents.
"It's a huge problem," said Republican Lt. Gov. Phil Bryant of Mississippi, where the state Senate last month became the first state legislative chamber to pass a bill modeled on the Arizona measure.
Opponents contend that such measures would unconstitutionally institutionalize racial profiling, leaving anyone who looks or sounds "different" vulnerable to being targeted by police — "just like the way African-Americans were discriminated years before," said Sole Arrellano, an organizer for the Mississippi Immigrants Rights Alliance.
Democratic state Sen. David Jordan, who is black, also said opposition to the bill crossed racial and ethnic lines.
"Those of us who have been in the struggle to see how things were done have to be skeptical of anything targeting African-Americans and Latinos," Jordan said.
Dividing line for Republicans
While the measures haven't gotten the national attention the Arizona law commanded, they are dividing legislators and immigration activists just as sharply.
Massachusetts police arrested a man last month and accused him of sending a threatening e-mail to Will Snyder, a Republican who introduced an Arizona-style law in the Florida House.
"You better just stop that ridiculous law if you value your and your family's lives, a------," the e-mail said, according to The Miami Herald.
They're also putting high-profile governors on the spot in states with large immigrant populations.
One of them is Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, former chairman of the Republican National Committee and a potential candidate for the White House in 2012.
The House passed its own version of the bill last week, and the two versions must be reconciled before it can go to Barbour's desk. He has signaled that he would likely sign it if it does, but the equation is a delicate one.
Strict enforcement of immigration law is an important Republican talking point, especially among conservative voters and those aligned with the Tea Party movement. But Barbour acknowledged that immigrant voters also are an important constituency, especially in Mississippi, where immigrants flocked to the state for rebuilding jobs after Hurricane Katrina devastated the coast in 2005.
"I don't know where we would have been in Mississippi after Katrina if it hadn't been for the Spanish speakers that came in to help rebuild, and there's no doubt in my mind that some of them weren't here legally," Barbour said. "If they hadn't come and stayed for a few months or a couple of years, we would be way, way, way behind where we are now."
Republican governors in two other big states, Texas and Florida, face similar calculations.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry has taken a hard line on some angles of the immigration issue. He called on the state Legislature to make illegal immigration a priority this session. At the same time, Perry has opposed enacting an Arizona-style law, saying little can be done until border security is "dealt with first."
"Until you secure the border — before the border is no longer a revolving door — you can't have a conversation, you can't debate this, you can't pass legislation that is going to have much impact at all," he said.
In Florida, Rick Scott, the new Republican governor, campaigned on a promise to enact an Arizona-style law. In doing so, he bucked the trend among high-profile Republicans in Florida, home to a large and politically powerful Cuban population. Opponents of a law modeled on the Arizona legislation include such prominent state Republicans as former Gov. Jeb Bush and former U.S. Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart.
Scott has been less vocal since taking office this month, declining, for example, to mention the issue in his keynote address Jan. 13 to a conference of the Hispanic Leadership Network.
"This, I think, is a really potentially important issue for Republicans," said Matthew Burbank, a political science professor at the University of Utah. (The Utah House is considering an Arizona-style police measure that its Republican sponsor, Rep. Steve Sandstrom of Orem, characterizes as "a hard-hitting, tough bill.")
Burbank said the measures "could split the Republican Party, because it's the kind of issue where there are just very different views."
Racial profiling vs. 'probable cause'
In virtually every state where an Arizona-style immigration bill is in play, activists have mobilized to protest that it's impossible to define "reasonable suspicion" or "probable cause" — the benchmarks left to the discretion of officers in virtually all of the measures — independent of race and color.
"We think this will definitely incentivize racial profiling," Karen Sherman Pérez, an organizer with the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition, said after Arizona-style bills were introduced in both state legislative chambers last month.
Nelly Vielma, an immigration lawyer in Laredo, Texas, agreed that local police were unable to make accurate immigration judgments in real time while enforcing local laws.
"Law enforcement personnel is not equipped with time, money, resources and training to identify the complexity of the immigration law," Vielma said. "We have plenty of Border Patrol (agents) that are trained to do that. That's their job. That's their duty."
But legislators pushing the bills reject that contention.
"It's only lawful if the officer can articulate a reason other than race, color or national origin to substantiate their reasonable suspicion," said Joey Fillingane, sponsor of the measure that passed the Mississippi Senate last month.
"We have taken every step I'm aware of that, if you're going to have a bill like this, to have no racial profiling," Fillingane said in an interview with Telemundo.
When asked what objective measures officers could use to establish a "reasonable suspicion" that a subject might be here illegally, he struggled to come up with an answer before suggesting that "one example would be if you can't speak a word of English."
(Census figures indicate that about 11 million U.S. citizens — either native-born or naturalized — demonstrate "limited English proficiency," defined by the government as poor enough to pose a "barrier to accessing important benefits or services, understanding and exercising important rights, complying with applicable responsibilities, or understanding other information provided by federally funded programs and activities.")
The difficulty of identifying a "reasonable suspicion" of illegal status independent of race or simple national origin gives pause to Republican Gov. Dave Heineman of Nebraska, where a bill similar to the Arizona legislation is before the state Senate. He said that while he supports the idea in principle, he would have to look hard at the measure should it come to his desk this year.
"If we're going to implement an Arizona-type law, we need to make sure we're not racial profiling," he said.
The prospect of Nebraska's passing such a law sparked a protest that drew nearly 300 people at the state Capitol in Lincoln last week.
Will federal government step up?
Fillingane said the main reason he and legislators in other states acted was impatience with inaction at the federal level to prevent illegal immigrants from taking jobs from legal residents and citizens, a problem he said was widespread in Mississippi.
"We're not a border state, but we do have lots of illegals here," he said.
A state audit put Mississippi's illegal immigrant population at 49,000 in 2006; Fillingane said his sense iss that the number has doubled since then. That would make illegal immigrants about 3 percent of the state's 3 million residents.
Fillingane, a Republican from Sumrall who was elected in 2007, insisted that it's also "not a Republican or Democrat issue."
"Both administrations — both the past Republican one and the current Democratic one — I think they promise in all their elections they're going to do immigration reform and worker reform and all that, and they never do it," he said, adding that even he didn't think his bill was "the best way of handling it."
"Inaction at the federal level is creating pressure on the states to do these type bills," Fillingane said. "Obviously, it would be much better to handle it on a national, united front at the federal level."
Spreading the 'Utah Compact'
In a movement that began last year in Utah, a loose coalition of business and religious leaders, immigration activists and Democratic and Republican politicians is seeking to make that happen without drafting local police to enforce federal laws.
The compact has inspired similar drives in other states in an expansion led by Somos Republicans, a national group of Hispanic Republicans based in Scottsdale, Ariz. So far, Utah Compact-style groups have sprung up in Georgia, Nebraska, Texas, Colorado, Florida, California, Iowa, Illinois, Virginia and Arizona.
Antonella Packard, the group's Northwest director, said Somos Republicans was a "very conservative" organization, but "we dislike the rhetoric that is being pretty much promulgated by some of the elements of the GOP toward Latino voters, also toward undocumented immigrants."
Fillingane said he recognized that illegal immigration "is a heart-wrenching issue, especially for families, some of whom are documented and some of whom are undocumented."
"It is a very, very difficult issue to deal with personally," he said. ... "Hopefully, there's a silver lining in the Arizona bill and this bill. Eventually, if enough states do something like this, the pressure will be so immense on the federal Congress and on the president to actually carry through on their campaign promises to have some immigration reform that we can all be happy with."
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