Controversial legislation reignites immigration debate in Illinois

2011-02-28T00:00:00Z 2011-03-17T23:55:07Z Controversial legislation reignites immigration debate in IllinoisBy Molly Born Medill News Service nwitimes.com
February 28, 2011 12:00 am  • 

SPRINGFIELD | Whether the burden should be on state officials and local police to enforce immigration law is again being hotly argued in the Illinois General Assembly.  

The pro forces in the General Assembly say the federal government has fallen down on the job of enforcing immigration laws and the state needs to take up the slack. Lawmakers against the bill argue that the state doesn't have the resources to do the job. 

On Feb. 17, House Bill 1969 was introduced in the Legislature, sparking controversy similar to one that split Arizona residents last year. The Illinois bill has prompted an abrasive response from Chicago-area activists who say this legislation incites "hatred against immigrants."

Introduced as the Immigration Law Enforcement Act last fall before the House session ended, the bill was reintroduced and filed under a different name last week. If passed, the bill also would penalize and detain undocumented individuals not carrying a resident permit, employers who hire those undocumented residents and anyone caught "transporting, moving, concealing, harboring or shielding unlawful aliens."

State Rep. Randy Ramey, R-West Chicago, who filed the bill that would enact the Taxpayer's Protection Act, said it has been popular among his constituents in the West Chicago area. Ramey said his polling estimates show about 80 percent of the district is in favor of the bill.

Rob Paral, an expert on Latino issues who has worked in immigrant integration, said it's a mistake to address immigration reform on a state level.

"They're not doing it because it's good policy," Paral said of local efforts. "These kinds of bills are all about symbolism."

Ramey said the government's failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform is what prompted him to introduce the bill in the first place. "Well, that's the problem," Ramey said. "The federal government is not picking the ball up and doing anything with this.

"Let's have a debate," he said, noting that few want to talk about the issue. "Tell me the merits of why I'm wrong."

Carla Navoa said she plans to do so.

An undocumented resident from the Philippines, Navoa's family moved to Highland Park when she was 5. Now an activist in Chicago's Immigrant Youth Justice League, the 22-year-old University of Illinois at Chicago student said she will join the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to protest the legislation Thursday in Springfield.

"I was infuriated because, from living in Chicago, that is pretty much an immigrant-friendly, immigrant-welcoming city and to have this bill introduced to threaten all of that made no sense to me," she said. "I often forget that outside of Chicago it's a completely different world."

Navoa said the ambiguity of the bill's name — the Taxpayer's Protection Act — is disturbing. 

"The rhetoric of that makes it sound like something citizens would support," she said. "When in reality it's racial profiling, attacking undocumented (residents) and sort of creating this divide and wanting to instill this sort of fear."

Ramey said he's heard the racial profiling argument before.

"If they want to say it's profiling, I would ask them which police department they would believe is going to break the law," Ramey said. "In the bill, it discusses there will be no profiling."

When asked how he would help Chicago's undocumented residents who advocate for overarching immigration legislation — many of them students such as Navoa — Ramey said he would be willing to address each unique case.

"If we could work something out with this student — individually, let's look at each case individually — maybe there are other things that you can do," Ramey said.

Ramey noted that the DREAM Act — which before it died in the U.S. Senate in December would have granted U.S. citizenship to undocumented residents if they earned a college degree or served two years in the military — was a good start but it failed to include penalties for parents who brought their children to the U.S. illegally.

In terms of law enforcement, Jeff Grogger, a University of Chicago professor who researches international migration and racial inequality, said lawmakers need to discuss whether it's appropriate to devote local resources to what many say is decidedly a federal issue.

By creating an environment in which people fear talking to police, he said, it will ultimately make their jobs harder.

"If you give people more reason to be fearful of police, they'll talk to you less," Grogger said. "This doesn't help law enforcement do their job."

Where would those illegal residents go, those who have lived in the state for years?

"A lot of undocumented immigrants already live in the shadows," he said. "Does this drive them further into the shadows or does it drive them into Wisconsin? I don't know."

The immigration debate in Illinois is rising in tandem with the Indiana Senate's 31-18 vote last week to pass similar legislation. That bill now moves to the Indiana House of Representatives.

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