Under newly fortified Republican control, many state governments started the year pledging forceful action to crack down on illegal immigration, saying they would fill a void left by the stalemate in Washington over the issue.
Now, with some legislatures winding down their sessions, the lack of consensus that has immobilized Congress has shown up in the legislatures as well and has slowed — but not stopped — the advance of bills to penalize illegal immigrants.
No state has passed a law that replicates the one adopted last April in Arizona, which greatly expanded the powers of police officers to question the immigration status of people they stop.
Still, immigrant advocates in many states say the debate has clearly shifted in favor of tougher enforcement. They say they have had to fight just to hold the line on immigration issues they thought were long settled.
Bills similar to Arizona’s are advancing in Florida, Kansas, Oklahoma and South Carolina. In Kansas and Oklahoma, even though Republicans control the legislatures and the executive branch, immigration proposals have encountered unusually vocal opposition from business.
Arizona-style bills died early in Colorado, and Nebraska decided this month to end its debate on one. Arizona’s law requires state and local police officers to inquire about the immigration status of anyone they stop if they have a “reasonable suspicion” the person is an illegal immigrant.
States also wrestled with other kinds of immigration initiatives. In New Mexico and Washington, Democrats backed by immigrant advocates defeated efforts to repeal laws granting driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. Those two states and Utah are the only ones that give licenses to illegal immigrants.
In New Mexico, the repeal effort was championed by Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican and a Hispanic, who had promised such a move in her campaign last year. A bill she supported was defeated by the Democratic-controlled state Senate on Wednesday. Instead, it approved a bill that added requirements, including fingerprinting, for immigrants without a Social Security number who apply for licenses.
If that bill wins final approval and the governor’s signature, it will create a two-tiered system, in which licenses issued to people without proof of legal residence will be distinctively marked. According to license authorities, about 83,000 illegal immigrants are driving in New Mexico.
Martinez vowed to continue to fight for the repeal, although this is the final week of the legislative session. She called the current law “dangerous” and accused Democrats of “partisan political gamesmanship” for blocking its repeal.
Marcela Diaz, executive director of Somos Un Pueblo Unido, a group that led the license fight, said, “It’s a good sign that we will be able to maintain licenses for folks who are living, working and paying taxes in our state, regardless of their immigration status.”
But, she said, “We don’t take anything for granted.”
In Utah, where the Legislature finished its session Thursday, lawmakers passed a novel package of three immigration laws. One was a revised version of the Arizona bill, without the most controversial parts. It requires the police to verify the immigration status of people they arrest on suspicion of committing a felony or serious misdemeanor. It allows, but does not require, the police to inquire about the status of people booked for lesser crimes.
“My bill is quite different than Arizona’s,” said state Rep. Stephen Sandstrom, a Republican who was the main author of the measure.
Another law authorized the creation of a state guest worker program by 2013, and instructed the governor and the attorney general to negotiate with federal authorities for a waiver to allow Utah employers to hire illegal immigrants.
Sandstrom said he was “completely against” the guest worker bill, which he called “a tragedy for the state.” He said the law was unconstitutional and unlikely to take effect but it would still lure illegal immigrants to Utah.
Utah’s attorney general, Mark Shurtleff, acknowledged that the proposed waiver does not exist in federal immigration law.
“It’s a federal crime to employ an illegal alien,” he said in an interview. “I don’t know how you get a waiver for a federal crime. I’m going to try. But it’s definitely an uphill battle.”
Those two measures venture into terrain generally reserved for federal immigration authorities, and are likely to draw legal challenges from advocacy groups, although they appear less likely to be challenged by the Obama administration.
Utah’s third new immigration law creates a labor commission to work with Nuevo Leon state in Mexico to bring laborers to Utah through existing federal guest worker programs. Shurtleff, a Republican, was the force behind that law.
The initiatives had the support of Utah businesses and law enforcement agencies as well as the Mormon and Catholic churches.
In Texas, the biggest news from the immigration debate was a bill by state Rep. Debbie Riddle, a Republican. Her legislation would penalize employers hiring illegal immigrants, with an exception for family households employing baby sitters or gardeners.
Immigrant groups and Democrats accused Riddle of hypocrisy, saying she wanted to deport illegal immigrants, except for her friends’ nannies.