The failure of the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform has led state and local governments to take this issue into their own hands. At a news conference on Jan. 7, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty jumped back into the immigration fray, unveiling his new plan to crack down on illegal immigration. The governor’s plan includes a mix of orders and proposals that reflect some of the steps taken by other states throughout the country.
At the start of 2007, the passage of major immigration legislation at the federal level seemed likely. Both President George W.Bush and the newly Democratic-controlled Congress appeared eager to come to an agreement on immigration issues. Ultimately, the federal efforts at reform were unsuccessful. The topic of immigration, however, has not faded from the public forefront. Many decision makers at the state and local level believe that immigration must be left up to the federal government. At the same time, others are unwilling to wait for action from Washington D.C. As a result, a number of states and cities have enacted measures to address immigration. While some states adopted pro-immigrant measures, such as protecting undocumented workers from exploitation and extending education and health care to their children, most of the state laws serve to limit employment of undocumented workers and to make it harder for them to obtain driver’s licenses and other state identification documents.
Arizona, for example, approved the Legal Arizona Workers Act, which states that employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers may have their business licenses suspended for the first offense, and permanently lose their licenses for a second offense within three years. In Tennessee, employers who “recklessly employ” an illegal immigrant may be charged with a criminal offense and ordered to pay fines up to $50,000. Arkansas passed a law barring state agencies from contracting with businesses that hire undocumented workers. Several states’ laws also prohibit undocumented workers from receiving employment benefits and prevent employers of undocumented workers from securing state contracts. States such as Kansas, Kentucky, Montana and Nevada enacted new laws or toughened current laws to bar illegal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. Eleven states also passed 15 laws on public benefits, mostly barring illegal immigrants from obtaining public assistance.
No legislative approval required
With his Jan. 7 plan, Gov. Pawlenty aligned himself with those states whose primary focus is “cracking down” on illegal immigration. Much of the plan is a repeat of the governor’s 2006 attempt to pass immigration legislation. That attempt ultimately failed to make it out of the House of Representatives, then controlled by Republicans. This time around, in addition to proposals for new laws, Pawlenty’s plan includes gubernatorial orders that do not require legislative approval.
The governor created three new mandates with his order:
• State law enforcement officials must formalize their relationship with the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE). This step includes immigration training for several dozen state employees who will work with ICE as needed.
• The Department of Public Safety must review photos on the state’s driver’s license database for possible fraud. The primary type of fraud targeted by this review is the use of duplicate photos on multiple drivers’ licenses.
• New state employees and contractors who do business with the state must verify their immigration status through an Internet-based system operated by the federal government.
The governor also called for new laws that will require approval by the State Legislature and involve the following:
• Strengthen the state’s human trafficking laws by expanding the definition of human trafficking.
• Increase fines for businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
• Increase penalties for identity theft and use of fraudulent documents.
• Prohibit cities from forbidding their police officers from asking about a person’s immigration status.
This last prong would affect both Minneapolis and St. Paul, which currently place such a limitation on their police officers. Advocates of such ordinances argue that they allow immigrants to feel more comfortable with police officers and that without the ordinances more crimes will go unreported.
This sort of opposition suggests that Governor Pawlenty faces a significant uphill battle in getting the Legislature to move forward with the new plan. According to Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller, DFL-Minneapolis, “these are warmed-over proposals that could not pass the House of Representatives when his party controlled the House.”
The 2008 legislative session begins on February 12th, at which time legislators will determine whether to hold hearings on the governor’s plan.
New procedures at border crossings
On Jan. 31, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) began to phase in new procedures that will affect U.S. and Canadian citizens entering the United States through land or sea ports of entry. Border crossers will be asked to present documents showing citizenship and identity. Previously, CBP allowed U.S. and Canadian citizens to enter the United States based on oral declaration of citizenship alone.
The change is a response to a high level of false claims to U.S. citizenship by individuals attempting to cross into the United States. CBP officers reported 1,517 such cases from October to December 2007 alone.
A list of acceptable documents is available at www.cbp.gov. Travelers may provide a single document that denotes both citizenship and identity, such as a valid passport, or two documents, such as a driver’s license and birth certificate, which separately show identity and citizenship.
The new document requirements will not be fully phased in until 2009. Jan. 31, marked the beginning of what will in part be a public awareness campaign by CBP. During the initial phase, travelers lacking the necessary documents can expect long delays while CBP officers, who will no longer rely on oral declarations, seek to verify identity and citizenship. Children ages 18 and under will only need to present a birth certificate. Full implementation of the new requirements will begin no sooner than June 2009.