PHOENIX—Frustrated by congressional inaction and pushed by anger at home, state legislatures across the United States are debating tough new restrictions on illegal immigrants.
For years, states deferred to the federal government on immigration matters, but as illegal immigrants have spread throughout the country and Congress has been unable to pass an immigration reform bill, that has changed. In the first six months of last year, states considered nearly 300 immigration-related bills and passed 36 of them, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Florida allowed state law officers to arrest illegal immigrants. Arizona barred day laborer centers from receiving public funds, and Virginia denied some state benefits to undocumented workers.
This year, the proposals include cutting off benefits to illegal immigrants, allowing local police to identify those in the country illegally and, in Arizona, sending National Guard troops to secure the Mexican border.
Traditionally, illegal immigrants have settled in border states such as California and Texas, or in metropolitan centers such as New York. But since 1990, there has been a tenfold increase in the number of illegal immigrants living outside these areas. States such as Minnesota, New Hampshire and Oklahoma began fielding complaints about the proliferation of Spanish-language signs and increased burdens on public hospitals and schools.
“There’s a cultural shift that people are sensing in their guts,” said David Schultheis, a Republican state representative in Colorado.
Arizona’s Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano, who in 2004 opposed a ballot initiative to cut off benefits to illegal immigrants, declared a state of emergency last summer along her state’s border, the busiest crossing for migrants.
Last week she unveiled a $100 million proposal to post National Guard troops along the border, toughen penalties for fraudulent identification papers and punish businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Th legislative season is young, but trends have emerged. A few proposals are favorable to illegal immigrants, such as a Massachusetts bill to extend in-state college tuition to them. But most center on denying benefits, allowing police to arrest people for being in the country illegally and increasing fines on employers who hire undocumented workers.
Some advocacy groups argue that the anti-immigrant legislation is tinged with racism and largely for show. They note that many state proposals never pass the legislature and that those that pass often get vetoed or overturned by the courts for intruding on federal law.