KANSAS CITY, Missouri (Reuters) - Minor traffic violations do not usually warrant a press release from a governor. But when state police stopped a van on a Missouri road for “following too closely” and found it was carrying 10 presumed illegal immigrants, Gov. Matt Blunt was quick to tout the incident as part of a new state program to hunt down undocumented aliens.
“We will make every effort, implement every tool, and take every step to ensure the laws against illegal immigration are enforced,” declared Blunt, announcing the arrests as he pursued tough new measures to push undocumented immigrants out of the state.
Missouri’s efforts are among several now being seen around the nation as state and local officials race to make their territory as unappealing as possible for the nation’s estimated 12 million undocumented individuals.
The campaign has drawn the ire of religious organizations, civil rights groups and some employers, who argue the actions are unfairly harassing and intimidating both illegal and legal immigrants.
“You’re starting to see this around the country. They’re trying to scare people and they’re saying ‘We don’t want you here,'” said William Sanchez, lead attorney for the National Coalition of Latino Clergy and Christian Leaders, which has filed suit to stop a new Oklahoma law that became effective Thursday.
Immigration law historically has been the role of the federal government. But Congress has deadlocked on efforts at immigration reform, frustrating those outside Washington who say illegal immigration puts a strain on schools, health care, and other community services and costs Americans jobs.
Forty-three states enacted 182 immigration-related laws this year, “an unprecedented level of activity,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
More than two dozen cities and counties have also introduced measures aimed at curbing illegal immigration, though many have been turned back by legal challenges.
Measures vary widely but many focus on penalizing employers of undocumented workers, restricting public benefits, and making it hard for illegals to find places to live.
Oklahoma’s new law is widely seen as the toughest in the nation, making it a felony to transport or harbor people without legal status, requires local law enforcement and businesses to enforce federal immigration restrictions, and reduces public benefits for illegal immigrants.
“Illegal aliens will not come to Oklahoma or anywhere else if there are no jobs waiting for them. They will not stay here if there is no government subsidy,” said the law’s sponsor, Oklahoma Rep. Randy Terrill, a Republican who believes the measure will make illegal immigrants “self deport.”
Both critics and supporters said the punitive measures could prompt thousands to flee the state, a factor that has lawmakers in other states eyeing similar measures.
“We are drafting our own legislation patterned after Oklahoma,” said Utah Sen. Bill Hickman. “We’re developing two different groups in society - those that have to obey the law and those that don‘t. Society can’t function very well that way.”
Critics of the crackdown say local and state lawmakers have no constitutional authority to try to enforce immigration law, and the crack down is making it hard to find workers.
“Reform of immigration law should occur through Congress. It is a federal issue,” said the Rev. Steve Copley, a United Methodist pastor. This week he announced the formation of the Arkansas Friendship Coalition, which opposes laws targeting immigrants. Tyson Foods Inc. and Alltel Corp. officials are among the members.
“We’re a nation of immigrants and the same hopes and dreams they share are the same hopes and dreams most of us share about a good life for our families,” said Copley.
In Missouri, Gov. Blunt has taken the opposite tact. Not only is he pushing state law enforcement to verify immigration status of people suspected of crimes, but also ordered audits of state contractors to ensure their employees are legal.
Over the last two months, Missouri law enforcement has arrested 85 people after immigration checks and has worked out a deal with the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to designate certain county jails to hold detainees.
“This is how we’re doing business henceforth,” said Missouri director of public safety Mark James. “We have 1,000 highway patrol, 100 water patrol and 30 to 40 capital police officers to work on this. If we can help that cause, then we’re doing something proactive.”
Additional reporting by Ben Fenwick in Oklahoma City