Immigration Battle Moves to State Legislatures
RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Democratic leaders in Congress are working on bills to legalize millions of immigrants. The prospects for such legislation improved markedly after a number of hard-line Republican opponents were defeated in last fall's elections. Some of the harshest measures proposed last year in the House are popping up at the state level now. In Virginia, immigrant advocates plan protest rallies this weekend.
NPR's Jennifer Ludden reports.
JENNIFER LUDDEN: John Steinbach spends hours each week volunteering for the non-profit group Mexicans Without Borders, as his car trunk attests.
Mr. JOHN STEINBACH (Mexicans Without Borders): I want to show you some of the winter clothes that we've been collecting. This is a constant struggle.
LUDDEN: Steinbach hands out the clothes to immigrant day laborers in Woodbridge, Virginia, and he certainly doesn't consider that a crime. But a bill in the state legislature would make it a felony to knowingly assist an illegal immigrant.
Mr. STEINBACH: Transporting an undocumented immigrant to the hospital would make me a felon. Going to the National Capital Food Bank and getting food and distributing it to day laborers would make me a felon.
LUDDEN: The bill's sponsor, delegate Jack Reid, doesn't rule that out.
Mr. JACK REID (Republican Delegate): If they know it and they're purposefully doing it, then we're after them too.
LUDDEN: But Reid says his main target is businesses who, he says, seek out, house and transport illegal workers.
Mr. REID: There are people in the building industry, let's say, who have contact me and said they are getting undercut on jobs by companies that they believe are hiring people who are here illegally. I mean, I've got one guy said you get them in court, I'll come testify.
LUDDEN: Reid's bill is one of dozens in Virginia's general assembly. Others would ban state and local funding for charities that provide services to illegal immigrants, expand the authority of state and local police to detain immigrants, and one would make it a misdemeanor simply to be in the state of Virginia without legal status.
Mr. MICHAEL FIX (Migration Policy Institute): Well, in immigration the issue is always what's symbolic and what's real.
LUDDEN: Michael Fix is the vice president of the Migration Policy Institute. Now, he admits he was wrong on this a year ago; many state immigration proposals Fix thought would die actually got passed. Still, he thinks some of those cropping up now are designed simply to make a statement.
Mr. FIX: Some of them will be enacted and not enforced. Enactment will be sufficient. Because it'll take a lot of enforcement really when you think about it, and a lot of energy and a lot of money to enforce a lot of these proposals.
LUDDEN: Fix says some legislation could prompt lawsuits. And in Texas, one lawmaker says a legal fight is exactly what he's looking for. He's proposed ending U.S. citizenship for children born to illegal immigrant mothers, something that challenges the 14th Amendment to the Constitution.
Virginia delegate Mark Cole complains that federal inaction is forcing states to take on immigration. He's sponsoring the bill to criminalize illegals present in the state.
Mr. MARK COLE (Republican Delegate): My primary goal is to try to make Virginia an unattractive destination for illegal immigrants.
LUDDEN: Hispanics say the problem is that these proposals are making Virginia unattractive for all of them.
(Soundbite of supermarket)
LUDDEN: This bustling Toto's Supermarket in Woodbridge is the symbol of a superstar immigrant success story. Owner Carlos Castro fled El Salvador's civil war in the 1980s. Now he's a U.S. citizen, but says in recent months he's begun to feel decidedly second class, like he imagines African-Americans once felt.
Mr. CARLOS CASTRO: We were the other day at a chamber of commerce event. We were meeting with our legislators. And somebody said that he was going to do something about illegal immigration, and all the heads turned out to our table. You can't help it to feel uncomfortable. I don't go alone anymore to any meetings because I want somebody to help me feel strong.
LUDDEN: After so much waiting for Congress to do something on immigration, Castro says he's now decided he needs to get more active with politics locally.
Jennifer Ludden, NPR News.