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As economy slides, state legislatures eye curbs on illegal immigrants

Jorge Chinea, director of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies at Wayne State University, says immigrants are scapegoated during tough economic times.
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Published 4/22/2009

For Jorge Chinea, it was predictable. Michigan's economy went sour, unemployment rose, state spending tightened, and who got blamed?"Whenever we have an economic downturn in the United States, we scapegoat the immigrants," says Chinea, director of the Center for Chicano-Boricua Studies at Wayne State University. But what's different in this recession is that state politicians, not federal elected officials, are introducing an increasing number of laws aimed at immigrants, mainly Michigan's undocumented population.

"We need to take a hard look and see what's motivating a lot of these measures," Chinea says.

Michigan legislators — mainly House Republicans — have introduced a flurry of bills in Lansing during the first few months of the current two-year session, many aimed at denying access to services. They want to tighten procedures for obtaining driver's licenses or identification and prevent undocumented immigrants from working. One bill would require the state auditor general to produce a report about the cost of illegal immigration to the state. Another measure would overrule local ordinances largely symbolic creating "sanctuary" cities like Detroit where city officials are forbidden from asking the immigration status of people not suspected of crimes.

Still other proposals would prevent undocumented workers from collecting workers compensation if they are hurt or injured on the job, prohibit noncitizen students from receiving financial aid and merit scholarships, require Social Security numbers on county marriage applications and make it a penalty to assist an unauthorized immigrant with obtaining an identity document.

The Michigan bills are part of a trend that's seen the number of immigration-related bills introduced in state legislatures skyrocket from 300 in 2005 to nearly 1,600 in 2007, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Last year, legislatures throughout the country considered about 1,300 immigration-related measures, but that was with six fewer states — those with part-time legislatures that don't meet every year.

"The level of interest in states is as high as it has ever been," says Ann Morse, a program director at NCSL. Her Washington, D.C.-based group, which tracks legislation across a range of policy subjects, plans to release a report this week that will show 2009 has about the same rate of state immigration legislation as last year, Morse says. "The high level of introductions indicates a high level of interest."

Adey Fisseha, the interim federal policy director at the National Immigration Law Center, headquartered in Los Angeles and Washington, D.C., says in attempting to deal with immigration-related issues, states are making up for the failure of Congress and President George Bush to address them. Bush made a push in 2004 to overhaul immigration and provide amnesty to some workers, but backed off after facing fierce opposition.

"I think states and localities are struggling to deal with immigration and immigrants where the federal government has not stepped in and solved problems," Fisseha says. "Whether you fall on the pro- or anti-immigration side, I think we can collectively agree that the immigration system is broken."

Much of the national immigration reform discussion focuses on the eventual fate of the roughly 12 million U.S. residents who are here illegally, without documentation, and many of the state initiatives address them.

Bob Dane, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a Washington, D.C.-based group that supports reducing immigration and strengthening border security, says the weak economy also is forcing the debate to more local levels of government. When home prices fall and people are less likely to move, issues like immigration become more localized, Dane says.

"When people stay put, they have an intensified focus on their local community, to improve it, to make it more economically viable, to create more job opportunities," Dane says. "We're tired of competing against illegal aliens for the scarcity of jobs."

About 110,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Michigan, according to a Pew Hispanic Center report published last week. That's a decrease of 10,000 from the 120,000 the center estimated lived here three years ago, and demographers say that reflects the tough job market in the state. About 65,000 undocumented immigrants were employed in Michigan in 2008, about 1.3 percent of the roughly 5 million-person work force, according to the Pew center.

Jeffrey Passel, a senior demographer at Pew, says the research report is intended to provide the best information possible to policymakers and the public to inform policy debates. "The theory is that it's better to have policy based on information than on assumptions," he says. "So our study gives a picture, it puts some numbers on the undocumented population that we hope helps people understand the magnitude of the population and how it could affect states."

But politics often color the data, and both major political parties are divided about immigration. Some Republicans support more liberal immigration policies, including some amnesty for people already here illegally, based on economics: Immigrants are often cheap labor and needed as employees. But other conservatives are concerned about the ability of the country to integrate immigrants and view them as a security issue, especially in the wake of the terror attacks of Sept. 11.

Joining them in opposing increased immigration and amnesty are some Democrats, according to Morse. "There is the concern that too much immigration harms U.S. workers," she says. But other Democrats view immigration as a social justice issue and generally favor more relaxed admittance and residency policies.

The result of the debate is an urgency for some kind of reform. But what form it should take is unresolved.

"Folks in state legislature are more and more thinking these are bills they should run with, but they're divided in the direction they should go in," says Jonathan Weinberg, a law professor at Wayne State University.

In Michigan, Rep. Paul Opsommer (R-DeWitt) thinks the first step should be determining the cost of illegal immigration to taxpayers. His bill, HB 4179, introduced in February, would required the state auditor general to report on how much state services to unauthorized immigrants cost and to determine whether Michigan can recoup any of that money from the federal government.

"We're $600 to $800 million short for this current budget year and $1.2 billion short for next year," he says. "We should have an idea of how much we spend and how we spend our money."

Opsommer's bill was referred to the Committee on Government Operations chaired by Rep. Bob Constan (D-Dearborn Heights). "I think maybe some people are grandstanding on the immigration issue," he says. "Having said that, I guess you can leave to your imagination how much importance I will give that bill."

Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), whose parents are immigrants from the Middle East, says bills like Opsommer's mislead the public about the dynamics of immigration.

Citing Michigan's nation-leading unemployment rate and skyrocketing budget shortfalls, she says, "We've got to worry about these kinds of things. [Immigration] is not a priority. This is not something that we should be wasting our time on."

Tlaib's southwest Detroit district is home to a large number of Hispanic residents, but she bristles at broad characterizations of them as being here illegally. "A lot of these folks went through the immigration system and know how it's impacting people's lives," she says.

Tlaib's mother has been a citizen for 30 years but still personalizes immigration policy debates, Tlaib says. "When she sees something that's anti-immigrant — making English an official language, trying to have a citizen check box on driver's license applications — she feels like it attacks her because she was born in another country and has an accent. I can understand why my community is very passionate about immigration reforms.

On Michigan's west side, Rep. David Agema (R-Grandville), has his motivations too. A military veteran, he says immigration is mainly a national security issue but also is costly, with undocumented immigrants sending money home to their countries of origin and sending their children to Michigan schools. A Supreme Court ruling mandates that states provide K-12 education to children regardless of their status

"They're looking for a better life but most of the people in the rest of the world are looking for a better life. We can't sustain it. To me, you have to stick to your guns," Agema says

He's the author of several bills introduced this session aimed at preventing undocumented immigrants from working in Michigan, from obtaining identification and from getting financial aid for higher education

"If they can't get a job or a driver's license, and they can't get higher education," Agema says, "there would be no reason for them to come here.

He believes Democrats support allowing immigration because it would strengthen the party's voting base: newly arrived voters tend to vote Democrat, goes the theory. "The House Democrats don't like my bills. My opinion is because they like these people because they vote and you know how they're going to vote," Agema says.

Tlaib disputes that characterization. "Where do our morals come into play?" she says.

While she expects to see more legislation introduced during this two-year session, Tlaib hopes the state will leave it alone and instead focus on the budget, jobs and the economy — more traditional state issues. At the state level, she says: "Trying to regulate immigration is not going to solve our problems. We don't have the resources to get into something that's a federal issue."

Sandra Svoboda is a Metro Times staff writer. Contact her at 313-202-8015 or ssvoboda@metrotimes.com.

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