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Frustrated states test boundaries of immigration laws

Trying to control illegal immigration in the absence of federal action, states have considered numerous approaches and five have passed sweeping laws, but the U.S. Supreme Court ruled last week that states can't undermine federal laws.
by Chris Casteel Published: June 30, 2012

The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court last week to invalidate part of Arizona's immigration law while leaving its most controversial element standing — at least for now — has led to conflicting opinions about whether more states will try to pass so-called “copycat” laws.

In states such as Alabama, Utah and South Carolina, which have already passed laws with provisions similar to Arizona's, legal challenges are expected to continue on some aspects, though enforcement of the provision sometimes referred to as “show me your papers” could move forward after hearings in lower federal courts.

The Oklahoma Legislature has not considered a sweeping package of immigration changes since 2007, when House Bill 1804 was approved.

That law prohibited illegal immigrants from getting government-issued identification, such as a driver's license; made illegal immigrants ineligible for most public assistance; and required employers to check the legal status of their workers.

In 2011, in lieu of considering a package similar to Arizona's law, Oklahoma legislative leaders formed a task force to determine what other laws were needed; that task force concluded late last year that no major changes were needed to Oklahoma's laws.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, a Republican, said in a statement that the high court's ruling “is in part good news for South Carolina law enforcement. Now, they can do their job and verify that those suspected of being here illegally are actually here legally.”

Haley's comment referred to a provision in the Arizona law and in similar laws that allows law enforcement officers, while enforcing other laws, to verify the citizenship of people if they have reasonable suspicion that the people are in the country illegally.

Inaction sparks laws

Many states whose leaders have been frustrated with inaction by the federal government to stem illegal immigration have considered passing laws with provisions regarding employment, education, housing, drivers' licenses and welfare benefits.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, five states have passed “omnibus” laws similar to the Arizona law, which was approved in 2010.

The Supreme Court considered only a few provisions of Arizona's law and struck down three of them, ruling that states can't pursue immigration policies that undermine federal laws. The court essentially took a wait-and-see approach to the provision that allows police to check immigration status.

Janet Murguia, president and CEO of the National Council of La Raza, a civil rights organization for Latinos, said the court's ruling “does not give states a green light to advance copycat measures,” sometimes referred to as “show-me-your-papers” laws.

But William Gheen, president of Americans for Legal Immigration, which supports laws similar to Arizona's, said: “We believe that we now have the momentum to pass versions of Arizona's SB 1070 law in many other states since the court upheld the most important provision in the bill.”

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by Chris Casteel
Washington Bureau
Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. After covering the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City, he moved to Washington in 1990, where...
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