ANNAPOLIS — A group of state legislators across the country are getting fed up with federal inaction on illegal immigration, so they’re taking it upon themselves to reform immigration law.
Led by members of a group called State Legislators for Legal Immigration, their coordinated strategy called “attrition through enforcement” is designed to impose legislation that makes life so difficult for illegal immigrants that even if they aren’t caught and deported, they might leave on their own.
Founded by Pennsylvania Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe, the group has members in 41 states, including three in Maryland — Dels. Pat McDonough, R-Harford, Nicholaus Kipke, R-Anne Arundel, and Don Dwyer, R-Anne Arundel.
SLLI has worked in Maryland and across the country to introduce controversial bills targeting illegal immigrants, including eliminating birthright citizenship for American-born children of illegal immigrants and authorizing local police to arrest people for suspected immigration violations.
The idea is that the state legislators “will make life so horrible (for illegal immigrants) that they’ll self-deport,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research at the Southern Poverty Law Center, which opposes such legislation. “So (the states) will make it easier for the cops to harass them, make it impossible to find work and hopefully they will leave. It’s terrible policy and it creates a divisive culture.”
McDonough said Maryland, known for its progressive stance toward immigrants, has become a magnet for those who see the state as a safe haven from federal immigration enforcement. He introduced 17 bills this legislative session to address the difficulties he said illegal immigration creates for Maryland.
He also is supporting a lawsuit against Montgomery College for providing in-county tuition to undocumented students, which goes against current Maryland law. Getting the courts to weigh in on immigration is another part of the strategy to enforce federal immigration law at the state level.
McDonough said Maryland’s population of illegal immigrants has exploded in the last few years because the state has provided them with a “free ride.”
“Maryland has the largest number of problems because we are probably the top sanctuary or amnesty state in the nation. We have politicians from the governor on down that have the welcome mat out for illegal immigrants,” he said.
All 17 of McDonough’s bills have either died in committee or been withdrawn. And the House of Delegates gave approval to a bill allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at Maryland community colleges and universities, provided they graduate from a Maryland high school and pay income taxes. The Senate must approve the House’s amendments, and Gov. Martin O'Malley has said he would sign it.
In other states, cracking down on what SLLI-founder Metcalfe calls “the illegal alien invasion” has been more successful. In Alabama, the House just passed a law giving local police broad authority to demand proof of legal presence from anyone they suspect might be in the country illegally. This is the first local enforcement bill passed since Arizona’s controversial SB 1070 last year.
That Arizona legislation, which is hung up in court, specifically states that it is designed to impose “attrition through enforcement.” It requires immigrants to keep their papers with them, forbids relaxation of federal immigration laws by local law enforcement and provides penalties for those harboring illegal immigrants.
National political analysts see state immigration enforcement as a balancing act for states and the federal government.
“These bills are testing how much farther states are going to go and where state policy stops and federal policy begins. It’s an extension of a long-standing debate over the relationship between states and the federal government,” said Ann Morse, program director for the National Conference of State Legislature’s immigrant policy project.
“We don’t believe Maryland would support the kind of legislation that Arizona ... put forth, where there is racial profiling and attempts to enforce immigration law (at the local level)," said Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez, D-Montgomery, a leader in Maryland’s New American Caucus.
Gutierrez and other legislators have proposed a number of bills, including in-state tuition for undocumented students, which are “targeted to rebut the policies in Arizona.”
Advocates for immigrants worry that once tougher immigration laws are in place, society will become more divisive and people will be less willing to cooperate with law enforcement. The effects of such programs are already being felt in Frederick County, Md., where in 2008, local law enforcement signed a memorandum of understanding with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement to participate in the 287(g) program. The program deputizes local officers to enforce federal immigration law.