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USA Today: States' Anti-illegal Immigration Bills Hit Roadblocks

by Alan Gomez, USA Today, March 28, 2012

Republican state legislators are struggling to pass laws this year that would give local police more powers to crack down on illegal immigrants.

After Arizona passed its landmark illegal immigration bill in 2010, legislators in Utah, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Indiana followed and passed similar laws last year.

But portions of all those laws have been blocked by federal courts and will face costly legal challenges, which could ultimately be decided when the Supreme Court reviews Arizona's law next month. Republican lawmakers say the threat of those lawsuits, some led by the Department of Justice, is one reason legislative leaders have put the brakes on immigration bills, or abandoned them altogether, as they wait to see how this election year plays out.

"Legislators are much better informed on the issue. I think that legislators … have been watching what's happening on the national level. The probability of that happening in Virginia is slight," said Virginia state Majority Leader Tommy Norment, who was the only Republican who voted against a state immigration law when it died in a Senate committee last month.

Missouri state Republican Sen. Will Kraus' immigration enforcement bill passed a state Senate committee in January, but Senate leaders have not moved it to the floor. In Kansas, leaders of the House and Senate have both said they don't see any immigration enforcement bills advancing this year.

Mississippi lawmakers are poised to pass an immigration bill this year, but it has been watered down to the point that it no longer encompasses the core of the Arizona law.

As the Mississippi bill has made its way through the House, lawmakers have cut the portion allowing law enforcement to perform roadside immigration checks. They have also removed contentious parts that would require school officials to check the immigration status of students enrolling in schools, and would make it a state crime not to carry identification papers — provisions that have been blocked by federal judges in other states.

The shift has been striking to Suman Raghunathan, given the wave of anti-illegal-immigration bills passed in the last two years.

"I think the pendulum has stopped a little closer … to the middle this year," said Raghunathan, policy director of the Progressive States Network, which opposes state immigration enforcement laws.

The change has been jarring for some Republican legislators.

Virginia state Delegate Rich Anderson , a Republican, was so intrigued after Arizona passed its immigration enforcement law that he used his own frequent-flier miles to visit the state to speak with the bill's sponsors.

Yet this year, Anderson couldn't even pass a bill that would inform Virginia magistrates about the immigration status of people arrested so they could use the information when determining whether to grant bail. So he doubts anything close to an Arizona-style bill would stand a chance.

"The timing is not right in Virginia," he said.

Tennessee state Rep. Joe Carr, a Republican who has authored several anti-illegal-immigration laws in recent years, is not optimistic that his bill granting police the ability to check the immigration status of suspects during routine traffic stops will pass the Republican-controlled Legislature this year. He said legislators in Tennessee and other states have grown wary of Justice Department-led lawsuits against states, and they're hoping November's presidential election will change that tone.

"We think we're going to have a much more friendly atmosphere in the federal government in a few months, so there's no reason to participate in an overly expensive endeavor," Carr said.