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Ariz. immigration law has echoes across U.S.

Image: A voter-approved ban on hiring and renting property to illegal immigrants was suspended Tuesday by the Fremont City Council
Audience members at a meeting Tuesday night of the Fremont, Neb., City Council raise their hands to show their support for implementing an ordinance restricting the rights of illegal immigrants. The council suspended the ordinance pending legal challenges.Nati Harnik / AP
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Arizona officers on Thursday began enforcing the state’s new immigration law — what’s left of it, anyway. In the small town of Fremont, Neb., they’re not even bothering.

Arizona and Fremont are at the forefront of the movement by state and local governments to get tough with illegal immigrants, rather than rely on the federal government’s efforts to address the problem. But they are learning that simply passing a law is far from enough.

after a U.S. district judge hearing a half-dozen lawsuits enjoined the key sections of the measure Wednesday. Among the provisions that were put on hold were those that called for officers to check a person’s immigration status while enforcing other laws and required immigrants to carry identification papers at all times.

Arizona’s law was the most far-reaching in the country and therefore the most closely watched. But similar measures are in place in local communities across the country, with effects that supporters may not have foreseen.

One of those communities is Fremont, about 30 miles northwest of Omaha in eastern Nebraska, where the Latino population has doubled to nearly 8 percent since 2000 thanks to hiring by two meatpacking plants just outside the city limits. Seventeen suspected illegal immigrants were arrested at one of the plants in March.

In a special election last month, voters approved an ordinance barring illegal immigrants from renting a home and requiring employers to verify the legal residency of anyone they hire.

That ordinance was also supposed to go into effect Thursday. But it was suspended Tuesday in the latest step on a legal journey every bit as convoluted as the road to implementation in Arizona.

The trail began twisting in 2008, when the Fremont City Council narrowly rejected the measure. That prompted activists to launch a petition drive for a special election, which the state Supreme Court ordered over the objections of city officials. Ordinance 5165 — which city officials argued would unconstitutionally pre-empt federal immigration law — passed with 57 percent of the vote. But within weeks, it was met with .

As Thursday’s implementation date drew near, Fremont officials warned that the measure could be ruinously expensive, estimating that simultaneously implementing it and defending it in court could cost the town of 26,000 as much as $1 million.That landed the issue on the City Council’s agenda yet again.

Tuesday night, the council , citing the pending legal challenges and the cost of defending them.

The tortured history of the ordinance has deeply divided the people of Fremont.

“I’m so disappointed that a law like this could have passed here,” said Mario Martinez, a Mexican American who lives in Fremont with his wife and young child. “I always thought in this day and age laws are meant to prevent discrimination, not encourage it.”

'Illegal is illegal' But Larry Gitt, who has run an electrical company in Fremont for 30 years, said the ordinance was about upholding the law, not targeting Latinos.

“Everybody I talk to has no problem with legal immigration,” Gitt said. “I don’t see why people can’t interpret where illegal is illegal.”

If the debate sounds familiar, there’s a reason. It’s being played out not just in Arizona and Fremont, but in every legislature across the country.

During the first half of 2010, lawmakers in all 50 states introduced 1,374 bills and resolutions seeking in some way to restrict or eliminate illegal immigration, according to data compiled by the National Conference of State Legislatures. Lawmakers passed 319 of them, in 44 states. (Five of those were vetoed.)

At that rate, states would approve nearly 650 immigration measures over the full year — nearly double the 353 approved last year and a 17-fold increase since 2005, when just 38 such measures passed, the conference said.

The legislatures in at least five states — Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and South Carolina — are considering full statewide crackdowns modeled on the Arizona law, and lawmakers in at least 18 other states have said they are preparing similar bills. Most of the new laws are more limited, applying restrictions like employment verification and requirements for drivers licenses.

That’s just at the state level. Hundreds of local communities have passed or are considering measures like Fremont’s.

There’s no reliable data cataloging how many such laws, especially at the local level, have been challenged in court. That’s because “the huge number of such laws and the rapid pace at which the laws are proposed, enacted, amended or rescinded would make such a survey very difficult to draft,” according to Huyen Pham, an immigration law specialist at the Texas Wesleyan University School of Law in Fort Worth.

Explosion of lawsuits?
But the Center for Public Policy Studies, a nonpartisan research institute at California State University-Stanislaus, projected in a report on state immigration measures last year that the increasing number of state and local laws — and the lack of clear guidance from the federal government — could lead to an explosion of lawsuits that would put a measurable strain on court caseloads.

“The complicated nexus of federal, state and local immigration law, policy and practice is likely to lead to numerous unanticipated consequences for local trial court operations and policy,” the authors concluded.

Put more simply, it’s clear that “win or lose, local governments enacting immigration laws run the risk of expensive, protracted litigation,” Pham said in a late-2008 paper on local immigration laws, adding: “Implementation for many local governments has been extremely problematic.”

To Walter Bailey, a member of the Summerville, S.C., Town Council, the lack of a clear nationwide immigration policy is precisely why local governments should wade in, not hold off. Bailey has introduced a measure closely mirroring the Fremont ordinance because, he said, “I don’t think the federal government or the state is doing anything at all to control illegal immigration.”

Like many opponents of such measures, Harry Villacis, head of Hispanic ministries at Faith Assembly of God in Summerville, contends that the proposed ordinance is aimed at Latinos in general. But he agrees with Bailey that nothing will be solved until the federal government enacts clearer immigration laws.

“There is a general perception that since there are so many million Hispanics here illegally that the whole Hispanic community is less worthy to be in this country,” Villacis said. “That will continue to get worse until there is reform.”

Proponents, like Craig Sanderson, a member of the City Council in Irondale, Ala., a suburb of Birmingham, insist it’s a matter of enforcing the law, not targeting any specific ethnic group. The council voted earlier this month to give police the authority to check the immigration status of anyone they pull over or encounter during investigations.

“All laws are important and we believe they should be enforced,” said Sanderson, who drafted the measure.

That’s what’s at the root of Arizona’s new law, said its author, state Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican from Mesa.

“Arizona didn’t make ‘illegal’ illegal. It actually already was illegal,” Pearce said. “And ‘illegal’ is not a race. It is a crime, and we’re going to enforce it.”

Illegal immigration defines Pearce’s service in state government. Before entering politics, he worked for 35 years in law enforcement, becoming the top deputy to controversial Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself America’s toughest sheriff.

“My son was shot and almost killed by an illegal alien, and he was wanted for drug trafficking,” Pearce said. “That guy, he’s in prison where he belongs.

“But I don’t hate him. I hold the government accountable. He shouldn’t have been here if the borders were secured and the laws were enforced.”

Architect rejects racial motivationBeyond the general debate over illegal immigration, there is one other unifying thread that ties Fremont’s ordinance directly to the Arizona law: It was drafted by Kris W. Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who also helped write Arizona’s measure.

In this May 3, 2010 photo, attorney Kris Kobach poses for a photo in Kansas City, Mo. When politicians and police across the county want to crack down on illegal immigration, they often reach out to Kobach, a little-known Kansas attorney with an Ivy League education who is the architect behind many of the nation's most controversial immigration laws. Kobach helps draft proposed laws and, after they are adopted, trains officers to enforce them. If the laws are challenged, he goes to court to defend them. His most recent project was advising Arizona officials on a new law that empowers police to question anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)Ed Zurga / FR34145 AP

Kobach, who was Attorney General John Ashcroft’s top adviser on immigration law in the early years of President George W. Bush’s administration, . Even as he is running for secretary of state in Kansas, he has offered to help Fremont defend its ordinance, an offer the City Council accepted Tuesday night.

Kobach rejects the contention of opponents like David Leopold, president of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, who says laws like the ones Kobach has crafted are “mean-spirited” and racially motivated.

It’s an argument echoed by Lazaro Spindola, executive director of the Nebraska Latino American Commission.

“I look at it as taking a step backwards to the ’50s, when there was racial discrimination everywhere,” Spindola said. “We are blaming things on an ethnic group with no reason.”

But Kobach maintains that “people who say they don’t like the Arizona law (are) misunderstanding what the law does.”

“The Arizona law says we want to continue making immigration arrests like we’ve been doing in the past,” he said. “We just want to standardize it and say, OK, these are the circumstances; these are the procedures.”

To Kobach, “The message is ‘illegal’ means ‘illegal.’ We need to enforce the law.”