Failed Immigration Bill Puts Onus on States, Cities

Supporters of the Senate immigration bill that fell 14 votes short of the 60 needed to pass a procedural vote vow to try again, but both sides say it could be several years before a similar overhaul is attempted. That means states and localities will continue with their own efforts to grapple with illegal immigration.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It may be years before the next time anybody tries to change immigration laws.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Legal immigration is one of the top concerns of the American people, and Congress' failure to act on it is a disappointment.

INSKEEP: President Bush made a rare admission of failure yesterday after Congress killed his proposals once again.

Pres. BUSH: American people understand the status quo is unacceptable when it comes to our immigration laws. A lot of us worked hard to see if we couldn't find a common ground. It didn't work.

INSKEEP: Which leaves states and cities to deal with illegal immigration on their own, as NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: The National League of Cities did not have a position on the Senate bill per se, but it had been urging Congress to do something, including some type of legalization program. Now, Rene Flowers, who sits on the NLC board of directors, says members are disappointed. Like it or not, she says, illegal immigrants are living in cities big and small.

Ms. RENE FLOWERS (Council Member, National League of Cities): You know, many of these individuals have integrated in entire communities, and they've held some really critical roles in certain employment arenas. And so you're having that time and investment in that labor force. And now that labor force is in jeopardy.

LUDDEN: Flowers says the league was also hoping for a better verification system to help businesses check legal status, for more money for English classes and social services, and for better enforcement measures.

In the past year, dozens of cities have railed at federal inaction and considered or passed tough enforcement measures on their own. Most would penalize businesses that hire illegal immigrants or landlords that rent to them. None have taken effect, though, because civil rights groups have challenged them as unconstitutional.

The ordinance in Hazleton, Pennsylvania went on trial this spring, and communities across the country are watching for a decision any day now. Whichever way the judge rules, though, it's likely to be appealed.

States have been just as busy, with more success. Dirk Hegen is with the National Conference of State Legislatures. He says this year, so far, there've been more than 1,100 bills on immigration introduced in state legislatures.

Mr. DIRK HEGEN (Policy Associate, Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures): You have a wide variety. So the bill they're talking about, the access of immigrants for public benefits, there are a lot of documentation and identification issues, drivers' licenses, and then, of course, in the arena of education and employment.

LUDDEN: Dozens of states have actually passed laws. Many simply reinforce federal law so, it's hard to gauge their impact. But Demetrios Papademetriou of the Migration Policy Institute says the aim is clear.

Dr. DEMETRIOS PAPADEMETRIOU (President, Migration Policy Institute): All of these laws have one defining characteristic. They are trying to make it very difficult for people who are here illegally to be able to function, in some sort of an expectation that people will move on.

LUDDEN: Adding to this pressure, Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff says his immigration agency will continue its stepped up campaign of raids at workplaces and homes.

Speaking after the Senate bill's collapse, a disappointed Chertoff expressed frustration that his agency is criticized on one hand for not doing enough enforcement, yet denounced for every action it does take.

Secretary MICHAEL CHERTOFF (Department of Homeland Security): I'm going to say to those people who say build the fence, come with me when I go to Texas. And I tell the ranchers and the mayors that they may not like it, but they're going to get some fencing. When people say enforce the law in the interior, I'm going to say come with me when we do conduct enforcement operations and we have to put people in detention and remove them.

LUDDEN: Maybe then, Chertoff suggested, the country can reach some consensus on this emotional debate.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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