States in the US passing their own immigration laws

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Frustrated by election year political rhetoric that has virtually halted meaningful discussion about immigration reform, individual states and cities within the United States are passing their own regulations. Sweeping new immigration laws in Colorado and Georgia may be the toughest state actions yet, but more than a dozen local governments are taking an even harder line that in some towns is leading landlords to start evicting illegal immigrants.

States have to be very careful not to violate Federal laws. Immigration is the specific jurisdiction of the Federal government, but local jurisdictions are looking for opportunities to take action against illegal immigrants.

Since the Pennsylvania city of Hazleton became the first to go after not only employers but also landlords of illegal immigrants on July 13, dozens of other local governments are debating similar ordinances seeking to deter illegal immigrants from settling in their communities.

Courts are now considering legal challenges against Hazleton and the town of Riverside, N.J., which copied the Pennsylvania town's ordinance to fine landlords $1,000 per day for renting to illegal immigrants and to strip business licenses from employers who hire undocumented workers. Opponents say the measures violate federal law by creating new immigration controls, which only Congress has the authority to do.

Four other communities already have passed measures based on Hazleton's, including Valley Park, Mo., where landlords started evicting dozens of tenants who are not legal residents earlier this month. At least 17 more cities are considering similar measures, according to the Puerto Rican Legal Defense and Education Fund, which filed the lawsuit against Hazleton's ordinance Aug. 15.

The outcome of the legal challenges will help determine how far state and local governments can go in their attempt to deter illegal immigration, advocates on both sides of the issue said.

"Going after (undocumented immigrants') housing has the potential to be more far-reaching than anything we've seen if the courts decide these measures aren't pre-empted by federal law," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at New York University School of Law.

Frustrated by what's seen as a failure by the federal government to enforce the nation's immigration laws, state and local governments have started experimenting with new -- and potentially unconstitutional -- ways to deter illegal immigrants by making it harder for them to get jobs, driver's licenses or housing.

States and local lawmakers have limited authority when it comes to immigration, which is solely a federal responsibility. A major federal immigration law passed in 1986 pre-empted most existing state immigration policies and forbids states from enacting tougher criminal or civil penalties for illegal immigration than those set by Congress.

This year, state legislatures considered a record 550 pieces of immigration-related legislation and passed at least 77 new laws in 27 states, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

Georgia passed a sweeping immigration reform package in May that set the strictest sanctions on employers and access to public services by any state. Colorado lawmakers passed nearly identical requirements during a politically heated special legislative session in July called by Republican Gov. Bill Owens.

The employer sanctions in both states will be phased in starting in 2007. The laws require employers to verify the immigration status of workers and penalize those caught hiring illegal aliens. Additional restrictions require that all adults applying for government benefits, licenses or other services with the state show documentation proving they are in the country legally. Colorado began enforcing the restrictions Aug. 1 and Georgia's will go into effect Jan. 1, 2007.

"Only the federal government can remove illegal aliens from the country, but state and local jurisdictions can and are taking action to deter new settlement, to encourage illegal aliens to leave and pressure federal authorities to enforce existing laws," said Mike Hethmon, an attorney for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, a conservative-leaning organization that advocates stricter immigration enforcement.

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