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Texas legislators will push new immigration laws

By Anabelle Garay
Associated Press Writer / January 5, 2009
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DALLAS—Some state lawmakers want to revive immigration discussions by proposing more than a dozen bills that among other things would punish employers for hiring unauthorized workers, challenge the U.S. citizenship of immigrants' U.S.-born children and reverse a Texas law that allows undocumented college students to pay in-state tuition.

Other bills filed for the 2009 Legislature would require public schools to maintain records on students' immigration status, impose a fee on money wired to Latin America, require identification from voters at the polls, prohibit parole for illegal immigrants and create a state criminal trespassing charge for illegal immigrants enforced by local police.

Several of the proposals are similar to ones introduced in the last session but failed to make it out of committee because they were considered unconstitutional.

"I think in some ways, they follow an old pattern. A lot of bills will be introduced," said Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute at NYU School of Law. "And they will be introduced again for the same political motivation by the same cast of characters. The issue is: 'Is it more likely that they'll get passed this time?'"

Discussion about immigration has faltered in the last year. It was not at the forefront in the presidential campaigns. Many states that started off with punitive immigration proposals didn't pass them and employers have been better organized to keep legislation on unauthorized workers from being too strict, experts say.

But the declining economy could make bills dealing employers who use unauthorized workers easier to endorse, Chishti said.

A handful of states have already approved such laws. Mississippi will eventually require all employers to use the federal online database E-Verify. The state also made it a felony for unauthorized workers to accept or perform work and would allow legal U.S. residents to sue if they were laid off and replaced by illegal workers. Employers in Arizona must verify the work eligibility of new hires using E-Verify and face penalties for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

State Rep. Debbie Riddle filed a bill for the upcoming Texas session that would suspend the licenses of employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, saying it curbs the incentive for people to immigrate illegally.

Cases questioning the constitutionality of similar laws elsewhere are pending before federal courts. In Hazleton, Penn., an ordinance that would penalize businesses for hiring unauthorized workers was later struck down by a federal judge. Arizona's employer sanction law has been upheld.

"If we wind up in a legal battle, we wind up in a legal battle," said Riddle, R-Tomball. "I'm not going to worry about what monster what might be behind a tree and jump at me."

State Rep. Leo Berman, R-Tyler, filed a bill challenging a Texas law that lets some illegal immigrant pay in-state tuition instead of the more costly foreign student rate. In California, an appeals court has allowed a lawsuit challenging a similar policy there to continue.

Like other lawmakers who proposed immigration-related bills, Riddle says she wants to keep her constituents from shouldering the costs of education, health care and other such services used by illegal immigrants and their children. She also said the bills will help keep Texans safe.

"This is about protecting the people of Texas, this is not about being politically correct," Riddle said. "So for those that are more concerned about being politically correct and not hurting somebody's feelings, to me they're putting the people of Texas at risk."

Nationwide, more than 1,000 immigration-related bills and resolutions were introduced in 2007. Texas led all states that year with more than 100 such bills, but only 11 were signed into law, according to research by the Migration Policy Institute and New York University School of Law.

Lawmakers realize most efforts targeting illegal immigrants stand a slim chance, but try to exploit ongoing concerns to garner support, said Luis Figueroa, legislative staff attorney for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

"We learned last session most of it wasn't taken very seriously. Most of it never got out of committee because it was so blatantly unconstitutional," Figueroa said. "I do feel that it is for the sake of appealing to a certain constituency and that they don't expect it to get very far."

State legislatures elsewhere also have continued working on bills aimed at immigrants and illegal immigration. The National Conference of State Legislatures' Immigrant Policy Project found more than 1,000 such pieces of legislation were introduced by late 2008.

"As long as immigration reform doesn't happen, the states will ... feel either compelled or obliged to," Chishti said.

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