The Battle to Localize Immigration Reform

Local governments are taking varied steps to ease their immigration concerns

| August 2, 2007

The exasperated groans that echoed from Capitol Hill after Congress' recent immigration reform debacle have reverberated across the nation into state and local communities. All sides of the immigration debate are fed up with the federal government's stalemate, forcing the hand of local government officials to enact their own immigration laws. While a federal judge's ruling last week could stop short local efforts to crack down on undocumented immigrants, the public's frustration persists and the battle over immigration reform rages on, with or without federal initiative.   

As the Associated Press reports, the high-profile Hazleton, Pennsylvania, ordinance that was just deemed unconstitutional punished employers and landlords of undocumented immigrants. US District Judge James Munley wrote in his ruling that 'immigration is a national issue,' and though the decision is not a legal precedent, experts say it will likely encourage other cities to abandon such laws to avoid a costly legal battle.

There are loopholes to constitutional arguments, though, such as the route taken by Prince William County in Virginia. According to the Christian Science Monitor, the county struck a deal with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that allows local law enforcement officers to inspect the legal status of people they pull over or arrest and send undocumented immigrants to the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation. So far, the DHS has made similar agreements with 21 other state and local agencies and has received the applications of about 75 more. Immigrants' rights activists, however, argue that such practices unfairly target immigrants and inevitably lead to racial profiling.

Not all local immigration reform laws are aimed at cracking down on illegal immigrants. The American Prospect highlights efforts in the city of New Haven, Connecticut, where city officials are attempting to create a more inclusive environment for all of their 125,000 residents by issuing a unique municipal ID card.

With the ID card, the city's undocumented immigrants -- estimated at 10 percent of the population -- will be able to access local public services, such as those provided at libraries, become customers of a local bank, buy prescriptions, and more fully participate in civil society. The city's board of aldermen president claims the policy was made out of practical rather than ideological concerns and will benefit the city as a whole. Supporters of the proposal say that, once supplied ID cards, undocumented immigrants will be more likely to report crimes because they'll be less likely to fear deportation. It will also allow undocumented immigrants to seek emergency medical care without having to think twice about their status.

Michael Wishnie, a legal advisor to New Haven's mayor, says that '[t]he failure of Congress to adopt comprehensive reform only makes more important efforts at state and local levels to adapt municipal and state policies to the needs of all residents.' The municipal ID card has garnered a number of admirers, including New York City and other cities that are eyeing the program as a possible solution to their own immigration concerns.

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