Is Immigration a Local Affair?

If you’re in the US illegally, you’re trespassing, according to Garrett Chamberlain, Chief of Police in New Ipswich, New Hampshire. In May of this year Chamberlain charged a Mexican national with trespassing.

He was wrong. A judge dropped the charges, ruling that immigration is a federal affair and Chamberlain should focus his efforts on local matters.

Although immigration is a federal matter, states and local governments are affected and have no choice but to create their own way of dealing with undocumented workers.

A number of states provide appropriate services to undocumented workers and their dependents because they have been residents for many years and have been contributing to the economy. California, Texas, New York, Utah, and Washington, for example, allow children of undocumented workers to attend college and pay the relatively low in-state fees. Other states are considering following suit.

The ability to drive an automobile is a privilege which many states grant undocumented workers. Utah, North Carolina,  Kansas, New Mexico, and Tennessee don’t require driver’s license applicants to prove that they are in the US legally. They don’t require a social security number to apply for driver’s licenses, accepting in its place a taxpayer identification number, which is available to undocumented workers.

By giving them a taxpayer identification number, the US is saying that undocumented immigrants can work. States allowing them to drive legally are merely following with the logical next step.

To be sure, not everyone is in favor of assistance to undocumented workers since they committed a crime by entering the US illegally. People are afraid that rewarding illegal behavior will encourage more of the same.  

New Jersey, Virginia, and West Virginia, recently passed new laws restricting undocumented workers’ ability to get driver’s licenses.

Angry voters in California and Arizona passed legislation which limits undocumented workers’ benefits. Proposition 187, passed by California voters in 1994, denied health and education benefits to undocumented workers. The courts declared it illegal several years later.

Last year Arizona voters passed Proposition 200, a similar law to Prop. 187, which so far is still legal. It denies benefits to undocumented workers but also requires state and local employees to verify the identity and immigration status of applicants for certain services.  State and local employees are also to report “discovered” immigration law violations to federal authorities. Failure to file such reports or to direct an employee to do so, results in a criminal offense, according to the law.

The anger towards undocumented workers has also generated the formation of groups like the Minutemen Project, which patrol the US border with Mexico. The Minutemen Project has been endorsed by California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger but has been labeled a vigilante group by President George W. Bush.

In California, a group by the name of Save Our State has been formed to counteract illegal immigration. The group has been accused of “violent, hateful, and racist actions.” Members of SOS, some of whom have links with neo-Nazis Skinheads and white supremacists, have had confrontations with Mexican Americans.

The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 10.3 million  “unauthorized” immigrants residing in the US. Most of these people have families. There are 3.1 million US-born kids who have parents without legal papers to stay in the US. In essence, these undocumented workers are established in the US with jobs, businesses, families, mortgages, etc. They are an integral part of their communities. They may have “trespassed” initially, but now it’s virtually impossible to deport them.

The federal government has spent billions to control illegal immigration but with little success. Now it appears some serious changes are in the works. New legislation by Sen. John McCain  (R-Arizona) and Edward Kennedy (D-Massachusetts) has been introduced. The plan reflects to a significant extent the broad outline proposed by President George W. Bush. Finally, it appears immigration will become a federal rather than a local issue.

Domenico Maceri PhD, UC Santa Barbara, CA. His articles have appeared in many newspapers and some have won awards from the National Association of Hispanic Publications.