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Towns, states lead immigration crackdown
Sacramento Bee


July 24, 2007

Against a backdrop of perceived federal inaction, a growing number of cities, counties and states are taking matters into their own hands when it comes to trying to reverse the trend of illegal immigration.

From the smallest town to an entire state -- Arizona -- governments are passing laws that target illegal immigrants in such indirect ways as preventing them from parking their cars to forcing city workers to decide who's legal and who isn't before someone can rent a home, use the library or get a job.

State attempts at targeting undocumented foreigners are nothing new and have raised constitutional questions for more than a decade. California's ill-fated Proposition 187, passed by voters in 1994, was one of the early attempts that sought to require health workers and teachers to card people.

But legal skirmishes are expected with greater frequency after the U.S. Senate's failure this summer to enact immigration revisions. The void has only emboldened opponents of illegal immigration whose stridency seems unlikely to fade.

"There's a great likelihood of mischief and trouble when local places get involved in immigration laws," said Kevin Johnson, a law professor at the University of California, Davis.

In Arizona, Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano reluctantly signed legislation on July 2 requiring all employers in the state to run new hires through a federal database operated by the Department of Homeland Security.

Although Napolitano said she generally does not agree with local and state governments regulating immigration -- which falls under federal jurisdiction -- she signed the law because Congress failed to take action.

The Senate bill would have legalized millions of illegal immigrants but also increased enforcement measures and ordered American employers to use Homeland Security's federal database.

Activists such as Marie Waldron, a City Council member in Escondido, Calif., about 30 miles north of San Diego, actually sought to topple the Senate bill, believing it treated illegal immigration too gently.

Waldron once led a failed attempt to create a California state border police. She also was the architect of a local law that would have made it illegal to rent housing to any illegal immigrants. The housing law cost the city $200,000 to defend in court, money that Waldron believes was well spent, even though the law ended up being scuttled last December.

"I wanted to see this all the way through court," Waldron said. "I was opposed to the city withdrawing from it. I also very much support training local police to be immigration officers."

Before the Escondido City Council decided to abandon the legal battle to defend Waldron's housing ordinance, a federal judge issued a temporary restraining order against it, citing "serious questions" of due process and other constitutional issues.

The American Civil Liberties Union and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, sued Escondido, as did a landlord.

In addition to unlawfully assuming federal power, civil rights attorneys argue, ad hoc local immigration policing leads to discrimination and abuse, while raising the specter of vigilantism.

Even attorneys who support local efforts to crack down on illegal immigrants warn that laws have to be crafted carefully.

Statutes that call for businesses or city workers to check someone's legal status have to be applied across the board, said Sharma Hammond, an attorney with the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Reform Law Institute.

In other words, the rules should be obeyed whether a tenant or a job applicant is named Juan Sanchez or James Smith.

All laws, Hammond said she advises cities, should include anti-discrimination clauses, and due process clauses to avoid claims that the accused were given no opportunities to defend themselves.

Hammond's institute, a partner of the Federation for American Immigration Reform -- a group that wants less immigration -- has offered assistance to several jurisdictions, including Escondido and Hazleton, Penn.

Hazleton is waiting for a judge's decision on its sweeping "Illegal Immigration Relief Act," which also targets employers and landlords.

In Virginia, Prince William County is studying how to implement a law passed this month to block illegal immigrants from using public benefits and services. Officials are still uncertain which services would be denied -- and whether they will include a range as broad as access to health clinics to public recreation facilities to libraries.

Jurisdictions already have the right to ask for federal assistance to check eligibility for certain public benefits that illegal immigrants cannot receive, including subsidized housing and non-emergency health care.

Although most homegrown laws targeting illegal immigrants are designed to be punitive, some jurisdictions are taking a decidedly different approach.

New Haven, Conn., decided this month to issue local ID cards to immigrants, regardless of status, so they can prove their residency when dealing with police or city officials.

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