"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.
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.
In 2004 and 2006, Pearce and other enforcement-first advocates, including Arizona GOP chairman Randy Pullen, sponsored a slate of immigration-related ballot measures. The five propositions required photo I.D. for voter registration and voting, cut public services for illegal residents, and barred judges from granting bail to illegals charged with a felony. The measures also prohibited the undocumented from receiving punitive damages when suing a U.S. citizen and made English Arizona's official language.
All five measures sailed to victory; four of the five won 75 percent of the vote. Together, the new restrictions were the toughest in the nation. Then came House Bill 2779.
Earlier this year, the Arizona statehouse passed the Pearce-authored "Fair and Legal Employment Act." The new law, which takes effect Jan. 1, seeks to cut off migrants' economic incentive for coming to the state by severely rapping employers who knowingly hire them. The first time an employer is caught, the state can order a 10-day suspension of the firm's business license. The second time, the state must revoke the firm's license altogether. HB 2779 also requires all employers to use the "Basic Pilot Verification Program," a federal identity-matching database.
Though Democratic Gov. Janet Napolitano has in large part refused to enforce the particulars of previous years' ballot measures, she signed Pearce's employer-sanctions bill.
Business and labor groups were aghast.
David N. Jones, president and CEO of the Arizona Contractors Association (ACA), argues that HB 2779 puts honest employers at risk. Under current state law, regulatory agencies can already hold hearings and enact sanctions if an employer is suspected of hiring illegal immigrants. With HB 2779, said Jones, "there is no due process. Someone can drop a dime on you, be it an ex-employee, a creditor, or a disgruntled ex-wife. All they have to do is file a frivolous complaint, and the county attorney or the attorney general is required to investigate."
Jones represents construction industry professionals who, with labor and civil-rights groups, populate what might be called Arizona's "enforcement plus" camp-people who want to secure the borders, but also create citizenship opportunities for current illegal residents and liberalize visa programs in order to assure a steady supply of foreign labor.
Jones said HB 2779 provides no "safe harbor" for employers who hire illegal immigrants by mistake. In addition, human resources personnel who closely scrutinize identity documents and then refuse to hire a person may risk being sued under state and federal anti-discrimination laws-on the basis of race or national origin, for example.
For his part, Pearce dismisses all of Jones' arguments as "myths."
Employers who in good faith use the Basic Pilot program and complete an I-9-a federal document verifying an applicant's immigration status-"have an affirmative defense," Pearce said. He added that employers are not required to take any action that they believe will violate state or federal law.
Still, the fear of arrest or deportation has triggered an immigrant exodus from Arizona in advance of the Jan. 1 deadline, USA Today reported on Sept. 27. School officials note drops in enrollment among Hispanic students. Real estate agents report a surge in homes offered for resale, attributing the uptick to undocumented residents who are packing up and leaving.
The enforcement-first camp says the exodus proves their strategy works. The enforcement-plus camp says it proves only that a kind of "social pressure" has been levied on a certain class of people, forcing them to go elsewhere.
The contractors' association and a coalition of 11 other business groups have filed suit against HB 2779 in federal court, seeking to block enforcement of the law, which they say is unconstitutional.
"Immigration law is the responsibility of the federal government under the Constitution," said Dave Selden, attorney for the plaintiffs. "State and local governments cannot enact their own business-related immigration laws. It's a prescription for economic chaos to have a bunch of local politicians and law enforcement officials jumping in to try and regulate hiring practices."
Selden was set to file a final brief in the suit on Oct. 19. U.S. District Court Judge Neal Wake is expected to rule on the case in early December.
That ruling will be pivotal. If Wake upholds HB 2779, the employer-sanction strategy will likely spread to other states. If he rules the law unconstitutional, the current wave of state and local immigration reform may slow to a trickle, adding urgency to the nationwide demand for Congress, finally, to act.
-with reporting by Kristin Chapman
Among the other states and municipalities taking action in the vacuum created by federal fecklessness on immigration reform:
Virginia: Fairfax's county executive on Oct. 17 vowed to begin studying which services might be restricted from illegal immigrants. Officials in Richmond County, meanwhile, rejected a proposal to build a 1,000-bed detention center for illegal immigrants. Instead, a state immigration task force approved a proposal to increase funding for construction or expansion of local jails.
Oklahoma: On Oct. 15, attorneys for the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders filed suit to block the Oklahoma Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act. Enacted in May, the law denies illegal immigrants state identification and requires all state and local agencies to verify that applicants for public benefits are American citizens. The measure also requires public employers to run job applicants' data through a federal immigration database. Hispanic evangelical churches in the state say they have lost an average of 12 percent of their membership since the law passed in May.
Texas: A U.S. district court on Oct. 12 rejected an appeal by the city of Farmers Branch. The suit claimed the city violated Texas' open-meeting law when it met in November 2006 to debate an ordinance that would prevent illegal immigrants from renting apartments. The council held a public vote approving the ordinance, but later rescinded the law. Voters in May then approved a new ordinance, but a judge blocked enforcement.
California: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger on Oct. 11 signed legislation that prevents municipalities from requiring landlords to inquire about or report on the immigration status of tenants. The American Civil Liberties Union, along with landlord, labor, and pro-immigrant groups, pushed the bill after the city of Escondido in 2006 passed an ordinance penalizing landlords who rented to illegal residents.
Pennsylvania: A federal lawsuit is pending on a similar ordinance in the city of Hazelton.
New Jersey: In September, the Riverside town council voted to repeal the Riverside Township Illegal Immigration Relief Act after the ACLU and immigrant groups filed suit. The ordinance, passed in July 2006, would have sanctioned landlords and businesses who rented to or hired illegal immigrants.
Missouri: In August, Republican Gov. Matt Blunt launched a two-pronged plan to crack down on illegal immigrants. First, he ordered random worksite checks to ensure that state-paid contractors aren't employing illegal workers. Blunt also announced a plan to train and "deputize" state and local law enforcement officers to act as immigration officers, enabling them to check the legal status of any person arrested. "Ideally this is a federal issue," Blunt told reporters in St. Louis. "But Washington has failed."