Border Wars

Immigration used to be considered strictly a federal issue. But it's heating up in legislatures all over the country.
June 2005
Donald F. Kettl
By Donald F. Kettl  |  Columnist
Sid Richardson Professor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs at the University of Texas at Austin

Bernarda Zavala is an unlikely symbol of a battle brewing throughout America. She's a 33-year-old mother of three in Phoenix, enrolled in a half-day program teaching her reading, writing and arithmetic. She wants to be literate so she can help her children learn. But she may have to give up that goal because she's an illegal immigrant. The Arizona legislature has been debating a bill that would prohibit the state from funding such assistance for anyone in the country illegally.

The Zavala case is just part of the frustration boiling over in Arizona. After federal immigration officials began blocking border crossings in Texas and California, illegal immigrants started funneling into the Grand Canyon State. That in turn has drawn volunteer Minutemen--armed vigilantes backed by a force of private planes--to do the job of border control they claim the feds are neglecting.

Arizona's Proposition 200 already excludes illegal immigrants from many state-funded services, but programs such as Zavala's literacy training are not specifically covered. The bill under consideration would explicitly cut off funding for those efforts as well. As one legislator argues, "You can't come here illegally and expect free stuff."

A similar debate is taking place in many capitols besides the one in Phoenix. More than half the states are discussing legislation to restrict illegal immigrants from full driving privileges. In Delaware, the mother of a firefighter killed in the World Trade Center has pressed for a bill requiring driver's license applicants to prove they were in the country legally. Referring to the hijackers, the mother says, "we allowed these murderers into this country, and we rewarded them by giving them driver's licenses."

Campaigns in Utah and Tennessee have produced laws replacing regular driver's licenses for illegal immigrants with identification cards, which cannot be used for boarding planes. This effort helped generate "RealID" legislation in Congress, designed to tighten license standards around the country.

Other legislatures have been debating whether students without legal immigration papers should be able to receive the benefits of in-state college tuition. The Virginia legislature passed a bill prohibiting these benefits, but Governor Mark Warner vetoed it. He pointed to Jose Gutierrez, who had entered the country illegally, joined the armed forces, died in the Iraq war, and was posthumously granted American citizenship. "Our nation was built by immigrants, and we should not take action that will prevent deserving students from living the American Dream," Warner said.

All these debates highlight the fundamental issue: whether to raise the barrier at our borders or simply accept that illegal immigrants will arrive and try to help them become productive residents. The persistence of the phenomenon is easy to document: Data from the 2000 census show that much of the population growth in many cities in the 1990s came from immigrants, in such far-ranging and unexpected places as Atlanta, Las Vegas, Charlotte and Salt Lake City. A large proportion of those immigrants entered the country illegally.

New York City's percentage of foreign-born residents grew 71 percent over the decade of the 1990s, and many analysts attribute the city's resurgence to the energetic spirit that immigrants brought to their new homes. Columnist Neal Peirce points to the contrast between Cleveland (where just 5 percent of the population is foreign born) and Toronto (where the share is 43 percent). He links Cleveland's "entrepreneurial drought"--and Toronto's robust growth--directly to immigration patterns.

For some Americans, the immigration debate conjures up images of foreign terrorists or freeloading immigrants receiving costly benefits. For others, the issue is economic opportunity. As some communities seek to lock immigrants out, others are aggressively seeking to lure them in.

For better or worse, much of the debate on what used to be national policy is taking place in state capitols and city halls around the country. It's a debate about the role that Bernarda Zavala and Jose Gutierrez--and millions of other immigrants--will play in shaping America's future.