ANNAPOLIS – A group of state legislators across the country are getting fed up with federal inaction on illegal immigration, so they’re taking it upon themselves to reform immigration law.
Led by members of a group called State Legislators for Legal Immigration, their coordinated strategy called “attrition through enforcement” is designed to impose legislation that makes life so difficult for illegal immigrants that even if they aren’t caught and deported, they may just leave on their own.
Founded by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the group has members in 41 states, including three in Maryland — Delegates Pat McDonough, R-Harford, Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, and Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel.
SLLI has worked in Maryland and across the country to introduce controversial bills targeting illegal immigrants, including eliminating birthright citizenship for American-born children of illegal immigrants and authorizing local police to arrest people for suspected immigration violations.
The idea is that the state legislators, “will make life so horrible (for illegal immigrants) that they’ll self-deport,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which opposes such legislation. “So (the states) will make it easier for the cops to harass them, make it impossible to find work and hopefully they will leave. It’s terrible policy and it creates a divisive culture.”
But McDonough says Maryland, known for its progressive stance toward immigrants, has become a magnet for those who see the state as a safe haven from federal immigration enforcement. He introduced 17 bills this legislative session to address all the difficulties he said illegal immigration creates for Maryland.
He is also supporting a lawsuit against Montgomery College for providing in-county tuition to undocumented students, which goes against current Maryland law. Getting the courts to weigh in on immigration is another part of the strategy to enforce federal immigration law at the state level.
“There certainly is that strategy (to take things through the courts). In some instances you have to force the federal government’s hand,” said Dwyer.
McDonough argues that Maryland’s population of illegal immigrants has exploded in the last few years because the state has provided them with a “free ride.”
“Maryland has the largest number of problems because we are probably the top sanctuary or amnesty state in the nation. We have politicians from the governor on down that have the welcome mat out for illegal immigrants,” said McDonough.
However, McDonough’s concerns are falling on deaf ears. All 17 of his bills have either died in committee or been withdrawn. And the House of Delegates gave approval to a bill allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Maryland community colleges and universities, provided they graduate from a Maryland high school and pay income taxes. The Senate must approve the House’s amendments, and Gov. Martin O’Malley has said he would sign it.
But in other states, cracking down on what SLLI-founder Metcalfe calls “the illegal alien invasion” has been much more successful. In Alabama, the House just passed a law giving local police broad authority to demand proof of legal presence from anyone they suspect may be in the country illegally. This is the first local enforcement bill passed since Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 last year.
That Arizona legislation, which is hung up in court, specifically states that it is designed to impose “attrition through enforcement” and requires immigrants to keep their papers with them, forbids relaxation of federal immigration laws by local law enforcement and provides penalties for those harboring illegal immigrants.
Elsewhere in the West, Texas Republicans, led by SLLI member Rep. Leo Berman, have proposed bills to make English the official state language, force children to prove their immigration status when enrolling in public school, and make it illegal to hire undocumented immigrants for any job except domestic work.
None of the Texas bills have passed so far. Colorado, Kentucky, Wyoming, New Hampshire, and Nebraska also have rejected Arizona-style bills this year, according to the National Immigration Forum.
National political analysts see state immigration enforcement as a balancing act for states and the federal government.
“These bills are testing how much farther states are going to go and where state policy stops and federal policy begins. It’s an extension of a long-standing debate over the relationship between states and the federal government,” said Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislature’s immigrant policy project.
“We don’t believe Maryland would support the kind of legislation that Arizona … put forth, where there is racial profiling and attempts to enforce immigration law (at the local level),” said Delegate Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a leader in Maryland’s New American Caucus.
Gutierrez and other legislators have proposed a number of bills, including in-state tuition for undocumented students, which are “targeted to rebut the policies in Arizona.”
Even though Gutierrez and McDonough are on opposite sides of the immigration debate, they agree that it’s the federal government’s inaction causing so much tension at the state level.
“(These issues) could easily be resolved if the feds stepped up to it and they dealt with this directly,” said Gutierrez. “It’s this inaction at the federal level and a totally unsustainable situation at the state level. This is where people live. This is where the families are. We need to deal with it.”
Advocates for immigrants worry that once tougher immigration laws are in place, society will become more divisive and people will be less willing to cooperate with law enforcement. The effects of such programs are already being felt in Maryland’s Frederick County, where in 2008, local law enforcement signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in the 287(g) program. The program deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.
A recent report published by the non-partisan Migration Policy Institute found that the county’s Hispanic population dropped 61 percent after the start of the program.
“There’s a lot of pushback against that (program), said Gutierrez. “You’re using the time and staff of local police departments to do federal work, and not do your local work. Also the consequence has been the loss of trust of the community. So, if you are afraid of your local law enforcement from an immigration perspective, then you’re not going to cooperate, and they’re not going to be able to do their job, which is so dependent on community trust.”
Southern Poverty Law Center’s Beirich argues that the consequences of harsh immigration legislation are even worse than distrust of the police — the laws “make life hell for the undocumented.”
She and other researchers from the Southern Poverty Law Center recently authored a report that links SLLI to extremist nativist groups and white supremacists and argues that the group is “taking a leading role in fostering xenophobic intolerance in statehouses across the nation.”
The report also links SLLI to FAIR, which the law center designates as a hate group because of its “white nationalist agenda and ties to racist groups.” FAIR has responded to the “hate group” charge, arguing that the Southern Poverty Law Center has not established criteria for what a “hate group” actually is, and only uses the term to increase donations.
Metcalfe thinks enforcement bills that make life difficult for illegal immigrants are essential to “protecting American life, liberty, and property.”
“There are hundreds of thousands of people coming across the border illegally each year, some committing violent crimes, from murder to rape, against American citizens,” Metcalfe said. “All of these people are existing daily by violating our laws, violations that if committed by American citizens would be fine-able or put in jail. When you have individuals coming across the border, unauthorized, that’s an invasion.”
SLLI’s ultimate goal, Metcalfe said, is to put pressure on Congress to reform American immigration policy.
“We’re hopeful to create enough pressure that Congress acts and addresses the invasion of our country. We’ve got troops all over the world in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, but we have borders that are open and porous. We’re protecting foreign interests abroad and not protecting our borders at home. We must force Congress to take on that responsibility and protect the states from invasion,” Metcalfe said.
For Maryland’s McDonough, SLLI’s coalition is part of a national movement of citizens who want to see more federal enforcement of immigration law.
“It’s a national movement, like the Civil Rights movement,” McDonough said. “It’s the citizenship and rule of law movement…We’re going to have to continue to do this until we have a president who says ‘I’m going to enforce the federal law. You don’t need to introduce anymore state laws, I’m going to enforce the law 110 percent.'”