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In the past year, we've become a nation of a thousand immigration laws and policies -- a confusing mosaic of fear, anger and nativism, of generosity, reason and self-defeating silliness. Although some of those laws were enacted before the Senate failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform in June, that failure greatly expanded the vacuum that local efforts sought to fill. It has also nourished the demagoguery that helps drive them, made immigration a prime domestic issue in the 2008 presidential campaign and intensified the fears those laws in turn produce.
If your name is Hernandez and you speak little English, can you risk reporting a crime to the local cops without being turned over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement? If you have a contagious disease or you're a drug addict, how willing will you be to seek treatment, and how safe are other residents because of that fear? And what about those driver's licenses? What happens when a car driven by an American citizen collides with one driven by an undocumented -- and uninsured -- immigrant? As the anti-immigrant zealots fan a generalized hysteria, these unresolved questions, which provoke legitimate fears, get little airtime. And there are many more: what are the chances of being stopped on the highway by sheriff's deputies empowered to arrest illegal immigrants, or of legal residents being rousted at midnight by warrantless raids?
There are also important questions of social policy crying out for redress. What sort of future is facing an 18-year-old high school graduate who was brought here by her parents as a young child and knows no other country but can't go to college, get a driver's license or a legal job? Conversely, how large a price should local schools have to pay to teach English to the children of illegal immigrants? A nation struggling with such issues is in dire need of leadership from its central government.
In the first eleven months of 2007, forty-six state legislatures passed nearly 250 immigration laws -- some 1,560 were introduced, nearly triple the number for the same period in 2006. Cities and counties have enacted hundreds more, ranging all over the philosophical and political map.
Begin with the action the city council of Hazleton, Pennsylvania, took in 2006 to prohibit landlords from renting to undocumented aliens. Hazleton's ordinance, which preceded the Senate vote, became a model for similar measures in the Southern California city of Escondido and in the Dallas suburb of Farmers Branch. All three quickly faced constitutional challenges -- the Escondido council reversed itself in the face of mounting legal costs; the Hazleton and Farmers Branch laws were blocked by federal courts. But the anxieties and rage that drove those acts weren't dampened by a couple of judges.
It's a long list. Last February Lake Havasu, Arizona, like a number of other cities, made an agreement with the feds under which local cops will be trained by federal agents to interrogate and detain all illegal immigrants for deportation. In June Green Bay, Wisconsin, voted to yank the licenses of businesses that hire undocumented immigrants. In October the supervisors in Prince William County, Virginia, voted to crack down on illegal immigrants by increasing police enforcement, creating a Criminal Alien Unit and denying virtually all services, including substance abuse counseling. In addition to a long list of sanctions, the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act of 2007 makes it a felony to "conceal, harbor or shelter from detection any alien."
Similar state laws have been enacted in Arizona and Tennessee. Alabama has created a Joint Interim Patriotic Immigration Commission to figure out some comprehensive approach to undocumented immigrants (a group that was immediately attacked as being stacked with pro-business and pro-immigrant voices). In October Missouri Governor Matt Blunt issued a press release lavishly praising the arrest and delivery to immigration authorities of a vanload of illegal immigrants who were stopped on the pretext of following another vehicle too closely. He promised (in Churchillian cadences) to "make every effort, implement every tool and take every step to ensure the laws against illegal immigration are enforced." Virginia has prohibited the sale of automatic weapons to illegal aliens, and Rhode Island approved legislation that will issue ID cards to all residents over 21 -- excepting only undocumented immigrants -- allowing them to drink alcohol.
In other places, the response has been more positive. Last summer, the city council of New Haven, Connecticut, enacted a measure to issue what it calls Elm City Resident Cards -- ID cards that also serve as small-balance debit cards -- to all local residents, legal and illegal. In November San Francisco adopted a virtually identical program. Also last summer, the Illinois legislature prohibited employers from participating in the mandatory federal employee verification system until the feds get their data systems in order; the Department of Homeland Security promptly filed suit to overturn the law. (A few weeks later, US District Judge Charles Breyer in San Francisco, citing the high likelihood of error and jeopardy to legal workers, upheld a challenge filed by the ACLU and a coalition of labor and business groups to implementation of the employee "no-match" verification system.) The DHS has since asked for more time to revise the system.