By Alan Gomez, USA TODAY
But as states wind down their 2011 legislative sessions, the results appear as muddled as the immigration debate itself.
The Georgia General Assembly passed a bill last week designed to crack down on illegal immigration. The same week, the Maryland General Assembly passed a law that goes the other direction and provides in-state college tuition to illegal immigrants. And the Utah Legislature recently passed a bill that lies somewhere in between.
“It just speaks to the complexity of the issues and of the folly of single states thinking they can take it on alone,” said Angela Kelley of the Center for American Progress, a group that opposes Arizona-style laws.
State legislators say they are being forced to tackle the issue because the federal government has not done its part.
On Tuesday, President Obama met with former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro and others to discuss federal immigration laws. Meanwhile, states move ahead.
Georgia’s bill closely mirrors Arizona’s S.B. 1070, which required all the state’s police officers to determine the immigration status of people stopped for another crime if there was a “reasonable suspicion” that the person was in the country illegally. The core aspects of that law were blocked by a federal judge, a ruling that was recently upheld by the 9th District Court of Appeals. The issue could be decided by the Supreme Court.
State Rep. Matt Ramsey, a Republican who sponsored Georgia’s bill, said the bill was necessary since the roughly 425,000 illegal immigrants in the state are taking advantage of public services when the state must cut spending.
Ramsey removed the “reasonable suspicion” aspect of the bill to help win passage and avoid the legal pitfalls that Arizona’s law faced. In its place, police can perform an immigration check if the suspect cannot produce any form of identification or give basic details that could help the officer verify their identity.
Opponents of the Georgia bill say it will be ruled unconstitutional, and are concerned with other aspects of the bill, including increased penalties for people caught transporting or hiding illegal immigrants. Jerry Gonzalez, of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said the law is written so vaguely that people driving their nanny home, or a church member providing assistance to someone, could unknowingly be caught up by the law.
“It doesn’t represent what Georgia could be all about, and it’s really a shame,” he said.
Elena Lacayo, immigration field coordinator for the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights group, is surprised that more states haven’t passed Arizona-type immigration laws this year. She has been happily crossing off states from a map in her office as bills have died: Colorado, Mississippi, Nebraska and South Dakota.
Even so, she said, several states — including Alabama, Oklahoma, Tennessee and South Carolina — still have Arizona-inspired laws moving through their state capitols.
Maryland took a different tact when its General Assembly passed a law granting in-state college tuition rates for some illegal immigrants. To qualify, students must have attended a Maryland high school for three years and prove that they or their parents paid taxes. Students would have to start at community colleges, but could later transfer to universities.
Several states — including Colorado, Connecticut, Oregon and Rhode Island — may still pass similar laws to Maryland’s this year, said Suman Raghunathan, an immigration policy specialist for the Progressive States Network, a group that supports tuition-equity laws.
Utah’s law would create a “guest worker” program that would allow illegal immigrants to register to work legally in the state. It would also allow police to report illegal immigrants who commit crimes to federal immigration officials.
What direction state legislatures head in the next few weeks is unclear. Ramsey said he’s relieved to be done with his immigration work for now. He says a federal immigration package is needed but says he at least understands the difficulty.
“ I thought it’d be slightly less difficult,” said Ramsey, a lawyer from Peachtree City, south of Atlanta. “But it was the toughest, most consuming piece of legislation by a factor of 1,000 that I’ve ever been involved in.”