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States get busy on immigration

The time honored saying that politics abhors a vacuum usually crops up whenever there's an open seat at any level of government.

That explains why so many Democrats and Republicans are vying to succeed President Bush, who is prohibited from seeking a third term.

But the vacuum theory can apply to issues as well as candidates.

Thus, it's no surprise that states have rushed to fill the policy gap created by Congress' failure to act on illegal immigration.

According to a report released last week by the National Conference of State Legislatures, 41 states have enacted 170 bills relating to immigration this year, more than double the 84 bills passed last year.

And that's not including the comprehensive immigration bill the Georgia General Assembly passed last year, which took effect at the beginning of July, or the local ordinances that cities and counties across the country have adopted.

Activists on the issue either accuse state and local lawmakers of displaying raw political opportunism by plunging in where Congress feared to tread, or praise them for responding to voters.

Jerry Gonzalez, executive director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials, said state and local governments are taking advantage of the situation.

"Unfortunately, with the absence of strong leadership at the federal level, state and local politicians will decide that's a popular issue," he said.

But Jimmy Herchek of Gwinnett County, a member of Georgians for Immigration Reduction, said state and local politicians simply are better listeners.

"All across the country, people have awakened to the illegal immigration crisis and are voicing their frustration to their elected representatives at all levels," he said. "(But) local folks often are more responsive than our federal representatives."

According to the report, states' efforts this year to address illegal immigration have been aimed at a variety of complaints about the effects the influx of illegals has had on American citizens.

Twenty-six laws enacted in 19 states are aimed at the hiring of undocumented workers. Another 35 laws in 26 states make it more difficult for illegals to obtain driver's licenses.

Ten laws in eight states establish new regulations on educating illegal immigrants, including several that deny in-state college tuition to illegals.

And 15 laws in 11 states relate to public benefits, including banning taxpayer-funded services to illegal immigrants.

While many of the laws contain similar provisions, some are downright contradictory.

Lawmakers in Arizona have banned the hiring of undocumented workers and, to accomplish that goal, are requiring employers to use the Basic Pilot Program, a federal database.

But their counterparts in Illinois have passed legislation prohibiting employers from participating in the program until it meets certain criteria for accuracy.

Gonzalez said the lack of uniformity is a huge drawback in relying on states instead of the federal government to enforce immigration laws

But Herchek said advocates for immigrants are being hypocritical when they criticize states for trying to control the flow of illegals when they praise attempts some cities have made to declare themselves off-limits to immigration enforcement.

He said Los Angeles is among a handful of cities that have declared themselves sanctuaries where illegal immigrants are safe from prosecution.

"(Los Angeles police) run into people every day that they're 95 percent certain are illegal," Herchek said. "But they're barred by city policy from even inquiring into it."

Other local governments have gone the other way by approving restrictions that would affect illegal immigrants, either directly or indirectly.

In Georgia, the Cobb County Commission and Roswell City Council have passed ordinances limiting the number of unrelated people who can live in a home.

Last week, Gwinnett Commissioner Bert Nasuti suggested that the county's current occupancy limit of eight might not be tough enough.

Cherokee County commissioners were poised to go a step further last year when they debated an outright ban on renting to illegals. But they shelved the proposal to see how court challenges of similar ordinances elsewhere played out.

That looks like a wise decision in light of a federal court ruling last month that found unconstitutional a Hazleton, Pa., ordinance prohibiting landlords from renting to illegal immigrants.

As calls continue for Congress to reopen its debate on the issue, Gonzalez said that's still where the solution needs to be found.

"State and local governments have a right to be frustrated," he said. "But that doesn't mean they can take the law into their own hands."

E-mail Dave Williams at dave.williams@gwinnettdailypost.com.