Guest Opinion


Legislators need to work on illegal immigration


The 2007 Montana Legislature failed to act on immigration legislation, a matter of huge national significance that has not yet become a significant matter in Montana. Montana stands out on the map of Western states for having by far the lowest per capita population of illegal aliens. However, seven bills were introduced to prepare Montana for the anticipated influx. All bills died.

The national security, public services and employment related implications of the millions of people who are in our country illegally has monopolized the work of Congress in recent weeks. But Congress appears unlikely to realistically address the problem because securing the border is necessary to any real solution, and neither Congress nor the president have made a priority of keeping illegals out. As long as immigrants continue to enter our country illegally, their impact will continue to grow.

According to the Pew Hispanic Center of the Pew Charitable Trusts, the number of illegal immigrants in the United States more than doubled from about 5 million in 1996 to 11 million in 2004. The number of undocumented immigrants in the United States is estimated to be more than 12 million.

In the border state of Arizona, according to Pew data, the number of undocumented persons quadrupled from 115,000 to an estimated 500,000 in the same 1996-2004 period. In response, Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano has taken the highly unusual step of declaring a state of emergency in order to free up state government money to boost law enforcement along the border.

Arizona people took action themselves in 2004 by adopting Proposition 200, which barred social services to illegal immigrants, made it a crime for public employees to fail to report undocumented immigrants seeking benefits, and required proof of citizenship to register to vote. Nearly 56 percent of Arizona voters supported the proposition, and a federal appeals court has rejected a lawsuit aimed at overturning it. Further legal action is pending.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, by the end of 2006, 32 states had enacted 84 laws pertaining to illegal aliens. Opposition to the legislation has often been fierce. Still, in the absence of meaningful action by Congress, states are acting independently to protect jobs and public resources.

In the past year Colorado has enacted legislation which prohibits state agencies from entering into agreements with contractors who knowingly employ illegal immigrants and requiring contractors to verify legal work status of their employees. Similar legislation died in the Montana legislature this year.

Colorado now restricts public benefits to those who are not U.S. citizens or legal permanent residents. A new Pennsylvania law prohibits the use of labor by illegal immigrants on projects financed by grants and loans from state government. Florida requires proof of legal immigrant status from driver’s license applicants. Maine and Missouri have enacted similar laws. New Hampshire requires proof of citizenship for voter registration. Similar laws have recently been enacted in Delaware and South Dakota.

The likelihood is that undocumented aliens will continue to enter the United States in large numbers. The 2007 legislative session missed the perfect opportunity to clarify our laws in regard to undocumented immigrants before they become a burden and source of conflict in our state.

Montana legislators should begin researching and preparing legislation, patterned after other states, for introduction in the 2009 legislative session. Or, perhaps Montana citizens should take the initiative themselves by placing an undocumented immigration measure on our election ballot for 2008.

Bob Brown is the former Montana Secretary of State.




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