Cover Story
“ILLEGAL IS ILLEGAL”: Maricopa County Sheriff’s officers begin the initial on-scene processing of a suspected illegal immigrant in Wickenburg, Ariz.

States' rights

Absent congressional action on immigration, local governments are risking lawsuits and protests to act against illegals. For border states like Arizona, where one in 25 of the nation's illegal immigrants resides, the stakes and burdens are high

Issue: "States' rights," Oct. 27, 2007

"This is America!" yelled activists from Help Save Manassas, a Virginia group opposing illegal immigration.

"Si, se puede!" responded another group of mostly Hispanic residents from across the street: "Yes, we can!"

The two sides faced off outside the county government complex in Manassas, Va., on Oct. 16, as officials inside prepared to vote on a plan to crack down on illegal immigrants in Prince William County. More than 1,200 people crowded in to listen as a string of speakers alternately lauded and condemned proposals that would cut certain county services to illegal residents, prohibit them from obtaining business licenses, and beef up local police authority to ask people about their immigration status.

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Nearly 400 emotional testimonies later, at 2:30 a.m., county supervisors voted unanimously to approve the crackdown.

Prince William County's action typified a growing backlash by state and local jurisdictions against federal inaction on illegal immigration. Since 2004, states, counties, and cities across the nation have enacted restrictions on landlords, employers, and public benefits in what amounts to a national experiment: the ability of non-federal governments to regulate, or at least blunt, the impact of illegal immigration-a role that once belonged to the feds.

The central question, said Jack Martin, an analyst at the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR): "How do you go about implementing changes in the law so as not to create an undue burden on states, municipalities, and employers?"

Arizona attorney Dave Selden, who represents employer groups in an immigration-related federal case, has a different question: Should non-federal jurisdictions be involved in immigration enforcement at all?

At the Manassas debate, the passion of people on both sides of the issue reflected the complex nature of the migrant question: Those who favor the county crackdown cite rising crime rates, crowded schools and emergency rooms, and the swelling tax burdens associated with illegal residents. Those opposed worry that illegal residents, fearing arrest or deportation, won't report crime or medical emergencies, and that families-with some members here legally and some not-will be torn apart.

David Dykstra, pastor and author of Yearning to Breathe Free: Thoughts on Immigration, Islam, & Freedom (Solid Ground, 2006), said Scripture is full of passages that deal with love for the foreigner and the importance of treating him with justice and fairness. At the same time, he told WORLD, "Romans 13:1-7 tells us that we are to be in subjection to the laws of the land and we are not to look with favor upon people who break the laws in coming into a nation illegally."

In the past two months alone, at least eight states have worked through questions of toughness versus compassion with varying results (see sidebar). But jurisdictional fires sparked by the absence of federal reform are burning hottest in Arizona.

About 500,000 illegal aliens reside in the desert state, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS). But the actual number is likely higher: DHS' 2005 estimate was 480,000 and, according to the Pew Hispanic Center, Arizona's illegal population has been swelling quickly, quadrupling between 1996 and 2005 from 115,00 to 500,000. Meanwhile, between Oct. 1, 2006, and Sept. 30, 2007, U.S. Border Patrol agents apprehended 375,000 aliens attempting to breach the 262-mile stretch of Arizona-Mexico border in the Tucson Sector. Agents estimate that for every illegal migrant caught, three make it across.

Using the current DHS estimate, though, about one in 12 Arizona residents is there illegally, and about one in 25 of the estimated 12 million illegal aliens in the United States resides in Arizona. FAIR in 2004 pegged the cost to Arizona taxpayers of that concentration at $1.3 billion per year, including the cost of education, medical care, and criminal incarceration.

"Arizona is now number one nationally in carjacking, home invasion, and identity theft," said state Rep. Russell Pearce, a Republican representing the city of Mesa. "There's a reason for that: Of those who come across the border illegally, one in 10 has a prior felony conviction."

Pearce is a prominent-and controversial-face in Arizona's "enforcement first" camp. He is unapologetic about his views on undocumented migrants: "Are most of them good people? Absolutely. Are they coming here for jobs? Absolutely. Are they taking jobs away from Americans? Absolutely. Are they suppressing American wages? Absolutely. Illegal is illegal. No one has the right to violate our laws and our sovereignty."

Such nuance-free statements have earned Pearce the enmity of civil-liberties and business groups, as well as that of sharp-tongued columnists. Pro-immigrant activists recently marched on the state capitol pumping anti-Pearce signs, including one that pictured the lawmaker with a large boot squashing his head. Last year, Arizona Republic columnist Doug MacEachern dubbed Pearce a "cowardly gasbag" after the lawmaker suggested that it would be possible to deport all illegal migrants already in America.

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