PHOENIX—Federal immigration officials don’t have the resources to punish illegal immigrants who may be reported by government workers under a recently approved Arizona initiative aimed at cracking down on fraud, immigration experts say.
State and local government workers who don’t report illegal immigrants who apply for some benefits and services could go to jail or face fines under Proposition 200, which voters passed Nov. 2. Federal officials won’t be responsible for enforcing the state law, but they will have to deal with any increased reports.
Immigration officials are already too swamped dealing with smugglers, fugitives and potential terrorists to deal with illegal immigrants seeking benefits, said Angela Kelley, deputy director of the National Immigration Forum, an immigrant rights organization.
“It puts in jeopardy priorities that target criminal aliens and terrorists _ those who mean to do us harm,” Kelley said. “It is completely a wrong-headed approach.”
The enforcement priorities for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents here include capturing and removing terrorists, migrant smugglers, criminal and fugitive illegal immigrants and protecting the national security infrastructure, said agency spokesman Russell Ahr.
Ahr wouldn’t say how ICE will handle reports generated by Proposition 200. Ahr also declined to say how many agents work in Arizona _ the main gateway for illegal immigrants on the U.S.-Mexico border.
But he did say ICE has been dealing with a budget shortfall, which has led to scaled-back training, travel and vehicle maintenance, as well as a ban on hiring and transfers.
The agency is already too busy to handle reports it receives about undocumented immigrants in workplaces unless they involve high security facilities, said Tamar Jacoby, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank.
“We have 8 to 12 million illegal immigrants in the country,” said Jacoby, who specializes in immigration. “There is no way that enforcement alone is going to solve the problem.”
Under Proposition 200, government workers must refuse to accept state-issued identification cards, including drivers’ licenses, to determine the eligibility for benefits unless the issuing agency has verified the applicant’s immigration status.
They will have to provide written reports to federal immigration authorities on illegal immigrants who seek certain benefits. But the reports will likely join the thousands of tips immigration officials in Arizona already receive monthly.
“We need to document what is going on even if we can’t act on it,” said Kathy McKee, chairwoman of a group that backed Proposition 200.
It sends a message to state and local government workers that they must enforce the laws. Once that happens, the focus can shift to what the federal government is doing, McKee said.
Proponents sold the measure to voters as an answer to the state’s illegal immigration crisis, with advertisements saying illegal immigration has increased homicides and home invasions, is costing Arizona’s health care system hundreds of millions of dollars, and is crowding public schools.
But the measure won’t address those issues or deter people from traveling north to work, said Deborah Meyers, policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
“Proposition 200 represents legitimate frustration by the people of Arizona about the challenges of illegal immigration,” Meyers said.
Gov. Janet Napolitano plans to declare Proposition 200, which would also require proof of citizenship when registering to vote, law after election results are canvassed Monday.