States enact their own immigration-related laws

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Monday, February 13, 2012

The loud and angry debate rages on.

Those who want tougher policies argue that American taxpayers spend billions to educate and provide health care for illegal immigrants. They say the immigrants take away jobs in an economy that is hard pressed to serve native-born populations. They worry about people with criminal backgrounds crossing the border and harming law-abiding U.S. citizens.

Those on the other side argue that illegal immigrants promote economic growth by paying taxes and spending money on goods and services. They are engaged in low- to middle-rung jobs that Americans don't want, and losing them as a workforce would mean higher prices at the checkout counter. In addition, deporting people comes at great human cost to families, many of whom have been in the United States for years.

So what's the country to do?

Policymakers and politicians have talked about everything from extending the wall at the U.S.-Mexican border to outright amnesty.

One thing is certain: In the highly contentious debate about immigration, new laws and proposed laws are changing the landscape for people living in the country illegally.

"We are passing policies that are hurting our immigrant community," said Christine Neumann-Ortiz of Voces de la Frontera, a state immigrant-rights group. "We are going backward. Statistically, 85 percent of immigrant families have someone in their family who is undocumented. That is why this is such a huge civil rights issue for Latino families. It is very much interwoven into their lives."

Those who want immigration laws strictly enforced applaud the changes. They say the measures are meant to send a clear message: "What part of 'illegal' don't you understand?" They oppose any kind of amnesty, saying that it forgives the act of illegal immigration and implicitly forgives other related illegal acts, including driving without a license and using false documents to work.


Among recent changes affecting illegal immigrants is the loss of in-state tuition for students without papers attending schools in the University of Wisconsin System and state technical colleges. The state Legislature endorsed the change in Gov. Scott Walker's two-year budget bill in June. Students without legal papers must now pay nonresident tuition.

Supporters of the change argue that some young people who are citizens cannot afford to go to school. So why reward someone who is in the country illegally?

State Sen. Tim Cullen, D-Janesville, opposed the action.

"I believe the Legislature will eventually correct it," he said. "It's a lack of general understanding of the right thing to do as an American."

UW-Whitewater Chancellor Richard Telfer said his school had 17 students in the undocumented category last summer. Because of higher tuition, six have transferred to technical institutions, where the costs are lower.

Students without legal papers now must pay nonresident tuition of $14,768, or more than twice as much as resident tuition.

Students affected by the boost in tuition are disappointed.

"I have looked forward to college," a 2011 graduate of Whitewater High School said. "It was within reach. Now, I have to work twice as hard to get the money. It is very difficult."

The student's Mexican parents are in the country illegally and brought their daughter to the United States when she was 6 months old. She said she knows little about Mexico.

Her mother earns slightly more than minimum wage working at a factory job. Her father has a part-time custodial job.

The woman has wanted to be a teacher since starting high school. Family and friends are helping to pay her tuition. In high school, she had almost a straight-A average.

"I've already worked so hard to achieve my goals," she said. "I will continue to work toward my dream."


Illegal immigrants have seen or may see other changes: n Since 2007, they can no longer get Wisconsin driver's licenses.

The 2006 federal "Real ID" legislation forces states to require a Social Security number for anyone who applies for a driver's license. Immigrants must show that they are in the country legally.

Opponents say that denying driver's licenses to illegal immigrants jeopardizes public safety because they often cannot access proper driver's education courses.

Proponents say that people in this country illegally should not be "rewarded" with driver's licenses.

-- A federal proposal called E-Verify would check Social Security numbers to determine whether people can legally work in the United States. The electronic system would be operated by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the Social Security Administration. It was introduced in May by U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, who called it a jobs bill. He said illegal immigrants are taking jobs from Americans who need them.

The House has yet to take up the E-Verify bill, but some states have enacted their own E-Verify laws. The shift puts the responsibility on employers to make sure workers are in the country legally.

In Wisconsin, immigrant workers such as Gerardo Ojeda have become a major source of hired labor for dairy farms. The Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board reports that the dairy industry pumps $26.5 billion a year into the economy.

Ojeda works from 5 p.m. to 5 a.m. Monday through Saturday at Larson Acres, a huge dairy in Magnolia Township in western Rock County.

He keeps a close watch on the herd's health and has been working with cows his entire life. At 49, Ojeda understands a bovine's disposition.

"You need to go easy with the cow," he said. "If she is nervous, she won't let her milk down."

Ojeda came to the United States 27 years ago from Zimatlan de Alvarez, Mexico, and is in the United States legally. He is married and has two grown children and two grandkids.

The Program on Agricultural Technology Studies at UW-Madison estimates that immigrants such as Ojeda make up more than 40 percent of all hired dairy workers in Wisconsin. Most are from Mexico, and most of the rest come from Central and South America.

-- Rep. Donald Pridemore, R-Hartford, has proposed legislation that would require a police officer to contact a federal agency if the officer suspects a person arrested for or charged with a crime or a civil violation is in the country illegally.

"It's a statement to the federal government," Pridemore said. "We have an abundance of people who are here illegally—some for nefarious reasons, some for legitimate work. Only people who break the law would be affected by this bill."

Pridemore was not alone last year in offering an immigration-related law. In the absence of federal reform, a record number of immigration-related measures was introduced in the nation's statehouses in 2011. State legislators across the country introduced about 1,600 measures related to immigration.

In addition, a majority of states adopted new laws. Five states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah—passed especially tough statutes patterned after Arizona's stringent new immigration law.

All are being challenged in lower federal courts.

This year, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear Arizona defend the controversial law SB1070 that inspired other states to take up the immigration issue.

Last updated: 1:36 pm Thursday, December 20, 2012

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