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Immigration not enforced, experts say; Report reveals a few states pass tough legislation

By Hernán Rozemberg
Houston Chronicle

Sept. 11, 2008, 10:12PM

A handful of conservative states with a recent influx of immigrants have drawn national attention for passing "punitive" immigration laws, but the reality is most state legislatures are quietly welcoming newcomers, according to a new report released Thursday.

The Progressive States Network, a pro-immigrant group founded three years ago in New York City to lobby states, weighed in on the immigration debate, concluding that the public has been wrongly led to conclude that most states have suddenly turned into immigration law enforcers.

"We hear a lot about an anti-immigrant movement spreading through states, but facts don't bear it out," said Joel Barkin, the group's executive director. "Pro-immigrant forces are actually winning the fight, though it's far from over."

Backers of increased immigration restrictions vehemently contested the report, countering it's a growing trend for states to crack down on illegal immigration due to inaction on the issue in Washington.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, or NCSL, which began tracking immigration bills filed in state houses across the country in 2005, when the issue hit the national spotlight, a record-setting 1,562 bills were introduced last year, up from 300 three years ago.

The report based its argument on where unauthorized immigrants live. Just 11 percent live in states that passed immigration enforcement laws this year such as Mississippi, Missouri, South Carolina and Utah.

By contrast, the report noted, more than half of unauthorized immigrants live in "integrative" states such as Texas, California and Illinois, places that have enacted laws providing migrants benefits.

The report's key conclusion is that states tackle immigration differently according to their experience with the issue: Where it's a newer phenomenon, there's an immediate reaction to oppose change.

"States that have had experience with immigrants for multiple generations like Texas have taken the most positive approach," said Nathan Newman, the network's policy director who authored the report.

Her participation in NCSL's immigration task force backs the report, said state Sen. Leticia Van de Putte, D-San Antonio.

There's no denying that efforts by state lawmakers to get involved in immigration laws have intensified in recent years, but not all pushed enforcement. Of those, only a few succeeded, Van de Putte said.

"Some were extremely mean-spirited, but thankfully few saw the light of day," she said.

Look for that few to quickly grow into a ton, warned state Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, who led a fight in the state House last year pushing for a slew of immigration enforcement bills that never made the floor.

As he sees it, the new report tries ”” unsuccessfully ”” to put a pro-immigrant spin on an issue that anti-illegal-immigration advocates have already seized.

Just wait until the session opens next year, said Berman, who promised better results for an expected 35 or more enforcement bills he and his supporters will introduce.

"They're illegal aliens with allegiance to another country," he maintained. "We need more of these state laws or else we're not abiding by our oath of office and we're aiding and abetting illegal immigration."

hrozemberg@express-news.net