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Federal inaction on immigration prompts local reactions

Tuesday, October 10, 2006
Daily Herald

A Cook County leader would offer refuge to immigrants living here illegally.
Forty miles away, two Carpentersville trustees would penalize all who "aid and abet" them.
Both views, divergent as they are, stem from the same symptom - irritation with Congress' inaction in dealing with the nation's estimated 12 million illegal immigrants.
Until federal gridlock clears, political experts say, more local governments will join Cook County and Carpentersville in tackling an issue far beyond the traditional municipal bailiwick of clean streets, cleared garbage and building code enforcement.
Nationwide, at least half a dozen towns banned illegal immigrants from renting or working locally. Dozens more are weighing similar measures.
"It's a different response, but it's borne of the same frustration," said Kent Redfield, a political scientist with the University of Illinois at Springfield.
"What you see here is a bottom-up, local-level frustration with what's happening, or more specifically, what's not happening in Washington," University of Minnesota historian Donna Gabaccia echoed.
Backed by village Trustees Paul Humpfer and Judy Stigwalt, the Carpentersville ordinance would fine landlords and deny business licenses to those who knowingly rent or hire undocumented workers. It also would make English the official language of the village, whose population is 40 percent Hispanic.
Carpentersville officials will meet later this month to discuss the proposal in a venue large enough to seat the more than 2,000 people who flooded a hearing last week.
The measure takes its cue from one recently passed in Hazleton, Pa.
"The more communities we get to support Hazleton, we might be able to get some changes in this country," Stigwalt said. "For too long, people have been passing the buck and saying it is the federal government's problem and it is not up to us."
Cook County officials use the same logic to push a different agenda.
County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado wants to create a "sanctuary county" to shield undocumented workers from deportation until immigration reform makes its way through Congress. The designation already exists in Chicago. The Chicago Democrat's proposal would stretch it to the suburbs.
Recently pulled from a county board agenda when Maldonado couldn't get the necessary votes, the proposal would bar county employees from questioning a person's immigration status. Maldonado said he will table the measure until he has enough votes.
"We are not trying to bypass any federal law," he said.
In tackling immigration, Carpentersville, Cook County and other municipalities reawaken a tradition steeped in the past.
Long before federal officials took control of the nation's borders, local officials determined immigration policy.
Creating screening stations for families flocking to this country during the late 1800s at Ellis Island in the east and Angel Island in the west signaled the power shift, said Gabaccia of the University of Minnesota's Immigration History Research Center. Federal officials secured the coasts first. Regulation of the Canadian and Mexican borders followed.
The federal government historically governed the citizenship process.
"There is this long buried history of days when it was states that actually passed whatever immigration legislation there was," Gabaccia said.
The Great Wave of immigration from 1890 to 1920 carried ship after ship of immigrants across the Atlantic Ocean. Rising with the tide, Gabaccia said, was an effort begun to create a "powerful, efficient and systematic way of dealing with the rapid rise of immigration."
The first restrictions on who could enter this country followed.
With every quota and every visa application, the framework for today's immigration policy emerged. Local discord surfaced with it.
Frustration bubbled over in November 1994. A majority of California voters backed a measure denying health care, public education and welfare benefits to immigrants living there illegally. Lawsuits buried the measure in federal court for years. It never was enforced.
It paved the way, though, for today's local efforts at immigration enforcement.
"They all build on the precedent of Proposition 187," Gabaccia said.
Like Proposition 187, they could be hamstrung by legal challenges.
When contradicting laws exist, federal trumps local. But city and county officials are not without legal recourse. They can act if Congress has not, said constitutional expert Harold Krent, dean of Chicago's Kent Law School.
More than 400 federal immigration laws and customs statutes exist.
"With immigration, even though it's more specifically a federal issue than a local issue, it's not exclusively a federal issue," Krent said. "In each case, one would have to ask whether Congress has spoken on the issue."
Opponents of illegal immigration urge local authorities to flex their legal muscle.
Whether it's training police officers to spot fake identification cards or enforcing laws that fine businesses for hiring undocumented workers, steps can be taken at the village or county level, said Illinois Minuteman Project founder Rosanna Pulido.
"Even if Carpentersville passes this, what about enforcement? Fraudulent document training is the other part of the pie to this ordinance," Pulido said. "This isn't a pipe dream."

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