It’s not just Arizona. In states far from the Mexico border — from liberal Massachusetts to moderate Iowa — Democrats and Republicans in gubernatorial races are running on strict anti-illegal-immigration platforms, pledging to sign an array of tough enforcement measures into law come January.
Of the 37 gubernatorial races this year, candidates in more than 20 states have endorsed adopting a strict Arizona-style immigration law or passing legislation that makes it harder for illegal immigrants to live, work and access basic public benefits in their states, according to a POLITICO analysis.
The prevalence of the issue means the Obama administration could find itself battling Arizona-style flare-ups in statehouses across the country, raising pressure on the White House and Congress to break the deadlock in Washington over comprehensive immigration reform.
The Justice Department sued Arizona in hopes of discouraging other states from following its lead and won a ruling blocking provisions of the law that immigrant advocates found most objectionable. But that hasn’t stopped some gubernatorial candidates from trying to one-up each other on the issue.
Georgia Democratic nominee Roy Barnes endorses an Arizona-style law for the state, saying he would sign similar legislation if elected. So does Georgia’s Republican nominee, former U.S. Rep. Nathan Deal, a staunch critic of comprehensive immigration reform who used the first ad of his primary campaign to endorse the Arizona crackdown. “If President Obama sues us too, we’re going to defend ourselves,” said Brian Robinson, communications director for Deal. “We’ve got to protect Georgia taxpayers if President Obama won’t.”
Alabama Republican Robert Bentley, who holds a double-digit lead over his Democratic challenger, vows to create “an environment that is unwelcoming to illegal immigrants.” He drafted a 10-point plan for what he describes as one of the most pressing problems facing the state, where the Pew Research Center found the immigrant population has at least doubled since 2005.
And in Massachusetts, Republican Charles Baker and independent Timothy Cahill are battling for the toughest-on-immigration title, while Democratic Gov. Deval Patrick takes hits from immigrant advocates for not being “proactive” enough.
The flood of get-tough statements could be just that — campaign talk that fades against the hard realities of governing and legal threats by the Justice Department. The outcome of a U.S. appeals court hearing on the Arizona law set for early November is likely to determine whether the state-level push stalls out or gains momentum.
But polls show voters want the government to stop the flow of illegal immigrants. And with Congress unlikely to act anytime soon, gubernatorial candidates are arguing that, as chief executives, they will try to do the job that they say the federal government has neglected.
The political pull can be fierce. At least three Republicans who initially expressed concern with the Arizona law walked back their opposition after taking heat from their party.
Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum scrambled to match the hard line of his challenger, Rick Scott, by introducing a proposal late in the primary election campaign that he said would go further than the Arizona law, but McCollum still lost. Wisconsin Republican Scott Walker went from skeptic to supporter of Arizona’s approach, as did Nebraska Gov. Dave Heineman, who has said he will work with the state attorney general to craft a law similar to Arizona’s for the 2011 legislative session.
“In the absence of federal action, we will see devastating policies at the state and local level, as demagogues rush in to fill the breach,” said Deepak Bhargava, executive director of the Center for Community Change, an immigrant advocacy group. “That is why it is critical that there is a renewed effort on the federal level.”
With state budgets in crisis and the economy struggling, candidates are framing the debate in financial terms, not simply as a law-and-order issue.
Illegal immigrants are already ineligible for all major government benefits, but that hasn’t stopped gubernatorial nominees from pledging to go even further in tightening verification requirements for public aid programs to establish an applicant’s legal status. “This is purely about politics and not substance,” said Jon Blazer, a public benefits attorney for the National Immigration Law Center, adding that the law is already restrictive.
Candidates are embracing E-Verify, a federal database that allows employers to check an employee’s Social Security number against government records. Only federal contractors are required to use the system, which has been criticized as unreliable. And governors in 13 states have signed legislation or executive orders mandating some level of participation from employers.
But if anti-illegal-immigration candidates win in November, more states, including Iowa, Georgia and Alabama, appear likely to jump on board or expand the program. Colorado Republican Dan Maes would require all private employers in his state to use E-Verify — the crux of his vision for legislation that “reduces the incentives to live, work and transfer funds from Colorado.”
Other top targets include scholarships, in-state tuition and driver’s licenses for illegal immigrants — flash points in states across the country.
In Massachusetts, Baker would tell state lawmakers to send him a package of hard-hitting immigration measures identical to a package that passed the Democratic-controlled state Senate this year but was eliminated from the final budget bill because of Gov. Patrick’s opposition, Baker spokesman Rick Gorka said.
It was considered an unusually tough measure for a state long represented by the late Sen. Ted Kennedy, the architect of the modern-day immigration system. But a confluence of factors contributed to its near passage, spurred on by Arizona, including a poll of Massachusetts voters showing strong support for the crackdown and the case of Obama’s Kenyan aunt, who was living in public housing while she fought a deportation order.
The package expanded efforts to block illegal immigrants from accessing public benefits, established a telephone line for people to anonymously report people they suspect of being illegal and required companies working with the state to confirm the legal status of their hires. “We would make sure state services are for state residents,” Gorka said. “This is a cost-saving measure; it is a responsible measure.”
Massachusetts had been known as one of the most welcoming to immigrants in the country, Eva Millona, executive director of the Massachusetts Immigration and Refugee Advocacy Coalition said. But lately, she said, “this is the most anti-immigrant climate we have witnessed.”
Even Patrick has turned cautious, doing little to act on a series of pro-immigrant recommendations from a state advisory panel. “Deval hasn’t been as proactive as we would have liked him to be,” said Millona, a co-chairwoman of the panel.
In New Mexico, a border state that has traditionally taken a more lenient approach than adjacent Arizona, Democrat Diane Denish and Republican Susana Martinez would stop issuing driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. But Martinez would go a step further in repealing the 2003 state law and revoking thousands of licenses. Martinez, who won the Republican primary by making her opponent look weak on border security, would also eliminate taxpayer-funded lottery scholarships.
“Not only does this provide further incentive for illegal immigrants to come to New Mexico,” Martinez says on her campaign website, “it is simply wrong to provide free scholarships to illegal immigrants when members of the military stationed in New Mexico are not eligible for the same benefits.”
Taking a position that goes further than other GOP candidates, former Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad, who is trying to unseat the Democratic governor, said a long-standing Supreme Court decision that forced states to educate the children of illegal immigrants should be overturned.
And when people are stopped for a criminal or traffic violation, they should be detained and turned over to the federal government if they can’t prove their legal status, Branstad has said. “Iowans are frustrated,” Branstad spokesman Tim Albrecht said. “Either we are going to enforce the laws or we are not going to enforce the laws, and Gov. Branstad is on the side of wanting to enforce those laws.”
Millona said the November elections will be a test: A strong showing by enforcement-only proponents could make it harder for Democrats and Republicans to come together on a comprehensive overhaul next year. “If they don’t win, it will be very clear — as it is clear to most of us — that the enforcement-only measures don’t work,” Millona said.