Erik Schelzig, AP, August 19, 2006
Nashville, Tenn. — Legislatures around the country are passing state laws to get tough on illegal immigration, but legal experts say many of those laws will turn out to be unconstitutional.
More than 550 bills relating to illegal immigration were introduced in statehouses this year, and at least 77 were enacted, according to a survey presented last week at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures.
However, NCSL analyst Ann Morse told lawmakers at the conference that a 1986 federal law forbids states from enacting stricter criminal or civil penalties for illegal immigration than those adopted by Congress.
“The federal government decided it was too complicated for the states to enact their own competing laws on this,” she said.
So what about the laws passed this year?
“I believe they’ll be tested in court,” she said.
State bills aimed at illegal immigration this year have included measures on education, employment, driver’s licenses, law enforcement, legal services and trafficking.
“Unique among the states, Georgia introduced a bill that addressed all these different policy arenas, and passed it as one bill earlier this spring,” Morse said.
It’s unlikely the federal government will want to relinquish enforcement of immigration laws to the states, said Demetrios Papademetriou, president of the Washington-based Migration Policy Institute.
“This is a prerogative that the feds really guard, particularly in Congress, with a passion that is probably unlike anything else,” he said.
Still, the states are likely to try to acquire as much authority on the subject as they can.
“Because the Congress is unable to act, people at your level — and the local level — are beginning to take things into their own hands,” Papademetriou told lawmakers at the conference. “I think we’re seeing the beginnings of something that will gradually transfer more power to the states.”