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DOCUMENTS


The Tentacle


July 23, 2007

Illegal Immigration: The New Battleground

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Sure, you'd think Texas, New Mexico, or maybe even Arizona, right? Not even close. The latest skirmish in our most challenging public policy battle is in Georgia, at least a thousand miles from the U.S.-Spanish border.

Georgia State Senator Chip Rogers has led the fight to enact one of the nation's toughest state immigration laws; and he has fought some traditional special interests that a popular Republican wouldn't normally want to have to line up against.

Georgia's law (Senate Bill 259) includes the following provisions:

- (1.)State & Local governments MUST verify the legal residency of recipients of benefits;

- (2.)Employers will also be required to verify the status of an applicant; and

- (3.)Law enforcement officers are granted authority to pursue trafficking and illegal document production.

Following closely on the heels of Georgia's action, state legislators in Oklahoma and Colorado are pursuing similar measures. These legislative epiphanies come after citizen outrage and pressure, as all sides of the economic equation are squeezed to the bursting point.

Forget safe harbor, we're talking about a "root them out and return them" mentality. It isn't just the illegal immigrant who gets targeted, either. In the Georgia bill, the penalties for employers who violate the new law are as tough as for those who traffic in human suffering.

In the best tradition of the political-bedfellows situation, Senator Rogers (a conservative Republican) found himself aligned with big labor and minority interest groups, and across the DMZ from groups like the Chamber of Commerce and business lobbyists.

Immigrant advocacy groups find a friend in the Chamber of Commerce, which express serious reservations on the impacts of these tough sanctions on a ready and reliable source of reasonably cheap labor.

To get his bill passed, Senator Rogers was forced into some significant compromises. He had to exempt anyone employed before the enactment date, which would be a significant number of employees. He had to agree that the verification criteria would only apply to companies who have more than 500 workers. Finally, the most difficult to enforce provisions were written to only apply to state contracts.

In order to obtain the number of votes needed to pass his bill, Senator Rogers also had to exempt anyone under 18, and the proof of legal residency will not apply to prenatal care, emergency medical care, crisis counseling, and immunizations.

So, is it worth those significant concessions to pass a bill? Legislators and activists in both Colorado and Oklahoma thought so. Both of these states passed bills requiring verification, and in the case of the Oklahoma bill, even tougher penalties for employers who hire illegal residents.

In every state where significant reform has passed, Republicans either held a majority in both chambers or at least had control of one chamber and the ability to sway moderate to conservative Democrats in the other. Another similarity is that citizen-feedback to legislators became so loud it effectively drowned out the other important policy debates.

A motivated public often has that affect on legislators.

So, where are we in Maryland? Well, maybe you'd better answer that for yourself. There are stores in Hispanic neighborhoods where identification cards are advertised at the check-out counter. These cards, laminated and accompanied by a photo, are available for purchase at the counter, with a Polaroid camera handy to record the smile for posterity.

Many of these cards look official, and have the words "State of Maryland," the Great Seal of our state, or at least an outline of the state map on the face of the card. Most look very much like a form of official identification, close enough to the official driver's license to fool all but the well-trained. An investment of $30-$40 and 10 minutes, and you walk out with your shiny new ID card.

My favorite versions even have an expiration date prominently featured. What possible purpose would be served by an expiration date, other than to make the card look like an official government document? Maybe it's just to ensure a recurring source of income for the storeowner, but I doubt it.

Immigrant advocacy groups claim these cards are harmless, that they would only be used for things like check-cashing. Truth be told, no one has any idea what these things are used for, but only an idiot or a fool would believe that these cards don't also serve as a key to unlock taxpayer-funded services.

Maryland's $1.5 billion dollar structural deficit forces us all to reconsider where we are in the continuum of services provided to people who are not in this country legally. Drastic cuts in services, or major tax increases, need to be accompanied by a challenge to those who have openly violated federal law to be here in the first place.

I certainly don't want to have to tell a hard-working, legally compliant Maryland family that their medically fragile child will remain on a waiting list because the state doesn't have the resources to pay for their care. I know that there are multiple families living here illegally in a single family dwelling who are using Medicaid to provide for their health needs, and have a number of children enrolled in our public schools.

Asking for the person who is demanding services to produce an ID card that validates their legal status before they receive those services is not an inhumane act. In our present day and time, it is a far more inhumane act to continue to deny access to services for those who are here legally in the interests of continuing to provide a safe harbor for those who violate federal law by their very presence.



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