U.S. Communities Act on Immigration Issues

President Bush says he wants to work with the new Congress to pass a comprehensive immigration package. But the issue may stall again in a Congress divided on the issue, leaving local communities to act on their own.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News on this New Year's Day. I'm Renee Montagne.

President Bush says he wants to work with the new Democratic Congress, and he's been especially passionate about one issue.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: And I've strongly believed that we can and must get a comprehensive immigration plan on my desk this year.

MONTAGNE: President Bush, and by all accounts, the chances of that happening are greater now. It was hard-lined Republicans in the House of Representatives, who most ardently opposed the President's call for a guest worker program. Still, it's not at all clear Congress can pass a bill. So much of the action may fall to states and local communities.

NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.

JENNIFER LUDDEN: In theory, the stars are aligned for a major immigration overhaul in Washington. And yet, -

Mr. JOHN KILLI(ph) (Center for Immigration Studies): I think what is likely, at least in 2007, is more of an impasse.

LUDDEN: John Killi is with the Center for Immigration Studies, which wants less immigration. He points out a lot of the new Democrats in Congress are more conservative, so-called blue dogs, and actually campaigned against illegal immigration.

Mr. KILLI: Speaker Pelosi, her first obligation in the 110th Congress is to actually see her party reelected. And I'm not sure an amnesty of any size is the kind of politics that the Democrats want to present to the electorate in 2008.

LUDDEN: If Congress does nothing, Killi and others say that would push even more states and cities to take matters into their own hands. Dozens of localities have passed or are considering proposals to find landlords who rent to undocumented immigrants or employers who hire them.

None of these measures has taken effect because civil rights groups have challenged them. The ordinance in Hazelton, Pennsylvania is a model for many. And early this year, it's expected to have its day in court. One person who'll be watching is the mayor of Escondido in Southern California.

Ms. LORI HOLT PFEILER (Mayor, Escondido, California): I do not think Hazelton has a chance.

LUDDEN: Lori Holt Pfeiler says her city council passed a similar crackdown on illegal immigrants. She opposed it and was pleased when last month, members reversed themselves. A local judge had blocked the law saying immigration was a federal issue.

Ms. HOLT PFEILER: The judge made it pretty clear that there were many issues with this ordinance. And it wasn't going to get anywhere. There was no chance for it to succeed, and they needed to just drop the ordinance.

LUDDEN: All the same, Hazelton officials have the support of national groups, and some analysts think that town's law could be argued all the way to the Supreme Court. In Escondido, Mayor Holt Pfeiler says the city council still hopes to find more subtle ways to pressure illegal immigrants like laws to address overcrowded housing.

Ms. HOLT PFEILER: You can put parking regulations on how long you can park on the street and so forth, so that you don't have too many cars in the neighborhood. More specifically, and I think more beneficial is illegal garage conversions, which create very unsafe living arrangements.

LUDDEN: 2007 will also see sweeping measures against illegal immigration take effect in Georgia and Colorado. They'll cut federal benefits and punish employers, who knowingly hire undocumented workers. Benjamin Johnson of the Immigration Policy Center thinks these local crackdowns are a bad idea.

Mr. BENJAMIN JOHNSON (Immigration Policy Center): When state and local officials begun their own roundup and their own sweeps, it makes it more difficult to deal with undocumented immigration because it drives people deeper and deeper underground.

LUDDEN: So Johnson says even if Congress does pass a legalization program, some immigrants might become too fearful to sign on to it. What's pretty certain is that as politicians debate, immigrants will keep coming. The Census Bureau projects that in 2007 migrants, legal and illegal, will increase the U.S. population by one person every 27 seconds.

Jennifer Ludden, NPR News, Washington.

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