Citizens pay when local lawmakers try to tackle immigration issues

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By Michael Barajas

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While many Texas lawmakers seem to have their hearts set on cracking down on illegal immigration at the state level, two national reports released this week show how costly the resulting legal battles can be, draining taxpayer dollars in the name of enforcement.

The reports released by the Center for American Progress and the Southern Poverty Law Center this week point to the millions spent by local governments on litigation while their proposals targeting undocumented workers languish in the courts. Among the cities mentioned is Famers Branch, which has spent nearly $4 million in legal fees defending an anti-immigration ordinance city leaders pushed through in 2006 — a law mandating that apartment owners and managers obtain proof of citizenship or legal status for every family member living on their property.

The taxpayers of Farmers Branch have been shorted because city leaders have insisted on defending the measure in court, said Gebe Martinez, a senior CAP policy analyst and author of the organization’s report. Sign of the serious toll the court battle has had on the local budget: Farmers Branch city leaders in 2010 approved a 1 percent cut in city employee salaries and benefits, with those savings shifted to help fund the city’s legal fight. Despite loud protests from citizens, the city even privatized the local library to save on operating costs.

“The bottom line is that the courts have shown that cities and states cannot create new immigration laws just like that,” said Martinez in an interview this week. Martinez said she hopes the CAP and SPLC reports serve as a stark warning that these legal battles have serious economic consequences.

As of yet, GOP lawmakers in Austin haven’t learned that lesson, Martinez said, adding that any anti-immigration bill would surely be challenged in court if passed.

The proliferation of Arizona-style legislation has hit Texas hard, and lawmakers have already rushed to file more than a dozen bills targeting undocumented immigrants — some closely mirror Arizona’s S.B. 1070, while others propose to make simply being an illegal immigrant in Texas a misdemeanor trespassing violation.

Martinez, a Texas native, lamented the anti-immigration fervor gripping some GOP lawmakers in Austin, and said of the current proposals: “I just can’t tell you how oppressive the image is in my mind. I really hope [Texas] avoids getting whipped up in this whole mess.”

Although Perry has vowed to veto Arizona-style proposals, Martinez said Texas’ governor has thrown more fuel to the fire, declaring so-called “sanctuary cities” an emergency and fast-tracking any legislation related to the issue. Fifteen Texas cities, including San Antonio, are listed as “sanctuary cities” by http://www.sanctuarycities.info, though the criteria for inclusion isn’t exactly clear.

Perry’s office is quick to outline the difference between what the governor has asked for and what other lawmakers have proposed. While the governor has said he doesn’t want a law on the books requiring local law enforcement to inquire about a person’s immigration status, he’s intent on doing away with local laws that prohibit police from asking.

“Our law enforcement’s hands do not need to be tied,” Perry spokeswoman Katherine Cesinger said this week. “Still, we’re not in the business of just picking up the slack because the feds won’t do it,” she added.

“I don’t mean to be sarcastic, but [Perry] is playing cute with the immigration issue,” Martinez remarked. “The ramifications for any of these policies run so deep  

Hopefully people will start to get the message that this is not worth the political sound bite.”

San Antonio Police Chief William McManus has argued against using local officers and resources to enforce federal immigration laws.

Still, the feds have developed a relatively passive way for local law enforcement to help check the immigration status of those moving through their departments. San Antonio and a number of other Texas cities already participate in “Secure Communities,” a controversial U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement program requiring local jailers to compare fingerprints of those locked-up by local law enforcement against federal immigration databases. ICE reported that as of September 2010 the agency had deported over 64,000 immigrants through the program.

Department of Homeland Security has said it wants the program active in every state by the end of 2011, and in every jail in the country by 2013. Early this month, in an apparent effort to fend off criticism and backlash from communities against the program, ICE announced that it plans to hire a PR firm to help craft the agency’s message.

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