States Put Immigration Theory into Practice While the House and Senate remain bitterly divided over immigration, state and local government officials must deal with immigrants legal and illegal every day. In schools, on the roads, in work places, reality and legal theory meet.
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States Put Immigration Theory into Practice

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States Put Immigration Theory into Practice

States Put Immigration Theory into Practice

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Members of Congress have been struggling over how to address illegal immigration and that struggle could continue for some time. But many states don't want to wait. They've begun to pass laws that allow them to act even if the federal government doesn't.

NPR's Kathleen Schalch has more.

KATHLEEN SCHALCH reporting:

Georgia State Senator Chip Rogers says his constituents have had enough. He says the flow of undocumented immigrants is putting a strain on people's everyday lives.

State Senator CHIP ROGERS (Republican, Georgia): Not only on schools and hospitals, but on roads. I mean, when you bring in what is estimated to be 800,000 illegal aliens in Georgia, that has an enormous impact on the traffic problems in and around metro Atlanta. The environment, you know, issue after issue after issue is being impacted. And the people of Georgia said to lawmakers, you know, you need to do something about this.

SCHALCH: Legislators did. Starting next year, life will be a lot harder for undocumented immigrants in Georgia. Rogers says they need no longer apply for driver's licenses or state benefits like welfare and Medicaid because they won't get them.

State Senator ROGERS: If you're illegally in the United States, you're not allowed to have any benefit whatsoever, except for emergency care, healthcare needed to prevent a communicable disease, and a K through 12 education. So those are essentially the only exemptions. Everything else you're not allowed to have.

SCHALCH: Landing a job in Georgia may be tougher too. Employers will have to verify employees' immigration status before deducting their salaries as a business expense. Other provisions range from speeding deportation of criminals to taxing remittances sent overseas. Georgia's new immigration law is the most sweeping in the nation.

But many other states are taking at least tentative steps in the same direction, according to Ann Morris, an immigration policy expert with the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Ms. ANN MORRIS (Immigration Policy Expert, National Conference of State Legislatures): Well, it's been a real surprise. State legislatures have introduced more than 460 bills in the first four months of this year. This is the highest since we've been recording said activity in the area of immigration issues.

SCHALCH: Roughly half the states are toying with stepping up local law enforcement, examining benefits and weighing bills dealing with employment. Ideas range across the board, Morris says.

Ms. MORRIS: Well, I think one of the more unusual bills I saw was related to making sure a person driving an ice cream truck was a U.S. citizen or lawful permanent resident.

SCHALCH: Some of the most successful proposals extend a helping hand. Ten states have decided to offer undocumented students in-state tuition. A similar number have toughened penalties against human traffickers. But more often than not, the same fights that have paralyzed Washington are raging in state capitals too.

Ms. MORRIS: We saw last year that more than 300 bills were introduced and only 50 were enacted.

SCHALCH: Morris says states can't do everything they might want to. For instance, states can't slap employers with criminal penalties that aren't in federal law or take away benefits that are.

But Georgia State Senator Chip Rogers says the main problem is that laws on the books aren't being enforced. Employers flout the law with impunity, he says.

State Senator ROGERS: You have millions of people receiving taxpayer-supported benefits that by law are not to go to those persons, and the federal government doing nothing about it.

SCHALCH: So he says Georgia's legislature decided to fill the void.

William Fry, a demographer with the Brookings Institution, says there's a reason so many state legislatures are in the hot seat. It has to do with rapid demographic change. Until recently, he says, immigrants flocked mainly to big cities in California, New York, Texas, Florida and Illinois.

Mr. WILLIAM FRY (Demographer, Brookings Institution): Fifteen years ago, 75 percent of the foreign-born population in the United States lived in the six, big six immigrant states.

SCHALCH: Since then, though, the foreign-born populations in 25 states have doubled. In Georgia, Nevada, Tennessee, Colorado and Arizona, they've either tripled or quadrupled. North Carolina's immigrant population is up five-fold. Immigrants have even poured in to Nebraska and Iowa.

Mr. FRY: All parts of the country, sort of in the inner part of the country, are beginning to experience this rapid growth of new immigrants. These are states that traditionally have had a largely white, Anglo population. Their usual idea of immigration was watching immigrants on TV, on news stories from the coast.

SCHALCH: On top of that, he says, many of these newest immigrants are poor.

Mr. FRY: The newcomers that are coming in to these states are the ones who are not as well educated as even the immigrants who are coming to the traditional states. They're less likely to speak English well. They're more likely to be undocumented.

SCHALCH: They're taking the lowest paying jobs and they're arriving in places that don't have the support networks and extended families that have helped earlier waves of immigrants get on their feet. State legislators are now watching to see what happens in Washington. But if federal lawmakers can't forge a consensus, the states will probably continue taking matters into their own hands.

Kathleen Schalch, NPR News, Washington.

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