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States plan crackdown on immigration but risk Latino ire

PHOENIX (Reuters) - Republican state legislatures are ramping up a crackdown on illegal immigrants this year, in a concerted drive that risks alienating potential business allies and Latino voters.

A member of the United States National Guard patrols along the U.S. and Mexico border in Nogales, Arizona October 8, 2010. REUTERS/Joshua Lott

At least seven states are tipped to follow Arizona’s controversial push last year to curb illegal immigration, and more than a dozen are harmonizing efforts to cancel birthright citizenship for the U.S. born children of illegal immigrants.

Lawmakers say the cooperation is unprecedented, and responds to a failure by Washington to secure the Mexico border and address the status of nearly 11 million illegal immigrants living in the shadows.

“The federal government has absolutely, totally and completely fallen down on its responsibility of protecting our nation’s borders,” said Randy Terrill, an Oklahoma Republican who is pushing immigration-related laws in the coming year.

The state push follows sweeping gains for Republicans in the November elections which gave them control of the U.S. House of Representatives and a stronger hand in the Senate, as well as their broadest showing at the state level in decades.

Seven states including Georgia, Mississippi, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina and Tennessee say they will push measures similar to Arizona’s immigration clampdown.

Arizona would have required state and local police to investigate the immigration status of anyone they suspected was in the country illegally, but a federal judge voided parts of the law before it went into effect in July.

And in a sign of growing cooperation on immigration issues, at least 14 states are working together on a shared legislative framework to challenge automatic U.S. citizenship for children born to illegal immigrant parents, which is grounded in the 14th amendment to the Constitution.

“What we’re doing together on the illegal alien issue is unprecedented and is historic,” said Daryl Metcalfe, a Republican state lawmaker from Pennsylvania who plans to present the model with colleagues from several other states at a news conference in Washington on Wednesday.

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President Barack Obama promised to push for an immigration overhaul, boosting border security and offering steps to legal status for millions of illegal immigrants, although Democrats failed to gain traction in the last Congress.

Republicans taking majority control of the House of Representatives on Wednesday are likely to focus on tightening enforcement and limiting immigration, analysts said.

The increasingly concerted crackdown on illegal immigrants will likely win support from conservative Republicans, some independents and even Democrats, analysts say, but could risk alienating Latino voters and some in the business community.

“If this is the only means through which the Republican Party addresses the broader issue of immigration, it may have some short term benefits but create serious long term difficulties,” said Dan Schnur, director of the Jesse M. Unruh Politics Institute at the University of Southern California.

Groups opposed to piecemeal legislation cracking down on illegal immigrants include some chambers of commerce, who favor standardized rules for business, and agricultural employers who rely on immigrant labor.

“We would have a heck of a time if anybody at the federal or state level were to approach immigration as an enforcement only approach,” said Ray Prewett, Executive Vice President of the Texas Vegetable Association, which represents citrus and vegetable farmers across Texas.

States may also face costly legal challenges if they pass legislation. Arizona faced seven lawsuits costing millions of dollars in legal defense funds, and is currently appealing the federal judge’s decision to block parts of its law.

The concerted push is also deepening mistrust of Republicans among Latinos, the country’s fastest growing minority, who turned out by a 2-to-1 margin for Obama in 2008 and helped Democrats hold on to control of key Senate seats in the West in November.

“You are looking at alienating the largest growing segment of the electorate in the country,” said Jerry Gonzalez, Executive Director of the Georgia Association of Latino Elected Officials. “(This) is really shooting yourself in the foot.”

The Hispanic population is projected to nearly triple, to 132.8 million by 2050, when nearly one in three U.S. residents will be Latino, according to a 2008 U.S. Census Bureau study.

Additional reporting by David Hendee in Omaha, Ed Stoddard in Dallas and Jim Forsyth in San Antonio; Editing by Greg McCune