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Politics or policy? How to deal with the influx of illegal immigrants is a top campaign issue this year.

When Colorado and Georgia tackled illegal immigration reform earlier this year, lawmakers defused what could have been an explosive issue in a tough election season. As November draws closer, politicians campaigning in both states are trumpeting their legislation as the toughest in the nation.

The Georgia law's Republican author said 80 percent of the residents were demanding a state solution. But Peach State Democrats countered that the legislation was more about politics than policy. And in Colorado, a state supreme court decision sparked a political firestorm that threatened radically to alter the state's political landscape a few short months before one of the most important elections in decades.

Immigration bills focusing on everything from employment, trafficking, public benefits, education, identification, voting rights, trafficking and law enforcement passed in 27 states in 2006, but Georgia and Colorado enacted the most comprehensive legislation. In Georgia, the governor's office and both houses of the legislature are controlled by Republicans, so the omnibus bill that passed there had smoother sailing. In Colorado, where Democrats hold the power in the legislature and the governor is Republican, politics was at the forefront.

THE COLORADO CASE

It started in mid-June, when the Colorado Supreme Court struck down a proposed constitutional amendment to ban state services to illegal immigrants that would have been on the November ballot. Supporters of the citizens' initiative were livid with the ruling and charged that the court's Democratic-appointed majority ran out the clock by taking three months to rule. Proponents had no legal remedy other than to ask the court to reverse its ruling--an unlikely outcome.

Enter Governor Bill Owens.

A day after the ruling, Owens lambasted the court's "arrogant" decision, which he said ignored years of legal precedent. The court, he said, had denied voters "a say in one of the most important public-policy debates of our time."

If the court did not reverse its decision, Owens threatened to call a special session to put the measure on the ballot. But with the legislature in Democratic hands, the governor was largely picking a political fight.

The announcement came during summer election season with both sides embroiled in an all-out war for control of state government. Republicans are battling to regain control of a state legislature wrested from their grip two years ago for the first time in four decades. And Democrats are eyeing the governor's mansion after an eight-year hiatus.

Republicans hoped to put the ban on the ballot in part to drive the Republican base to the polls. Not surprisingly, Democrats wanted to keep what they called a wedge issue off the ballot.

Owens' special session threat gave the early upper hand to Republicans, political observers said, because it forced Democrats to strike a precarious balance between getting tough on immigration without alienating their liberal base.

"They're going to have to oppose what Owens is going to do, but they can't come out in favor of illegal immigration. He's put them in a tough spot," said Bob Loevy, a Colorado College political science professor, in June.

Perhaps with that in mind, Democratic leaders went to work. Two days after calling a special session unnecessary, they announced they were considering taking the unprecedented step of calling lawmakers back to Denver--on their own terms.

If Owens were to make the call, he would dictate the agenda. For example, he could have narrowly tailored the call to force lawmakers to debate putting a measure on the ballot. Hoping to avoid getting put in a box, Democrats later decided to attempt to call lawmakers back themselves.

They asked their colleagues to come back to consider strengthening enforcement of current laws, including employer verification of employment-eligibility status. But the idea was a long shot because Democrats needed two-thirds of the lawmakers to sign on. And with Owens and other Republicans focused on putting a measure on the ballot, the Democrats' call was a nonstarter.

Behind the scenes, Democratic House Speaker Andrew Romanoff had begun backchannel discussions with two prominent Democrats on opposite sides of the defunct ballot question. Former Governor Dick Lamm was a leading proponent of the initiative and former Denver Mayor Federico Pena was heading the opposition.

Pena and Lamm said they had found common ground and agreed to pursue immigration reform through new laws instead of a constitutional amendment.

"Both of those groups have said a statutory solution makes more sense than a constitutional measure. And if Dick Lamm and Federico Pena can agree on this issue, the governor and the legislature can too," Romanoff said after the compromise was announced.

The two sides agreed on a solution, modeled after the Georgia law, that combined provisions of the defunct ballot and a Democratic-backed proposal to stiffen penalties for employers who don't verify their employees' legal status. The compromise also would list the state services that would be denied to illegal immigrants.

The news seemed to force Owens' hand. Late that same night, the governor announced that he would call a special session that included the compromise. The next day, Owens outlined a broad agenda that, among other things, directed lawmakers to consider sending the ballot question to voters if they failed to pass substantive immigration reform.

Owens said he crafted the call to make quality public policy, not to politically jam the Democrats.

Even so, political observers still said the call was driven more by politics than policy. But, by calling the special session, Owens ceded control to the Democrats and gave them the opportunity to share credit on an issue the GOP was trying to take the lead on.

And so lawmakers were set to start the special session in early July, much where they began after the court decision--with Republicans demanding a ballot measure and Democrats insisting on an immediate, statutory fix.

The first day of the special session saw a short-lived victory for Republicans when they hijacked a Democratic proposal to ban services to illegal immigrants and replaced it with a ballot measure.

"What's driving them, as l understand it, is the desire to make this an election issue, the consequences be damned," Democratic Speaker Romanoff said then.

Democratic Senator Ron Tupa crossed party lines to give Republicans the one vote they needed to make the change. Tupa said he wanted to delay the bill's passage because he hadn't had time to review it thoroughly.

After Tupa broke ranks, three other Democrats--all in races targeted by Republicans--switched their votes. The reversals led Republicans to call the trio flip-floppers making political calculations.

Democratic Senator Bob Hagedorn, the sponsor of the hijacked bill, said the vote demonstrated that the special session was simply about partisan posturing.

"It's a charade. It's a mockery, this whole special session," a visibly frustrated Hagedorn said then. "This is not about good public policy; this is about the November election."

On the third day, Democratic leaders addressed the Republican coup by introducing a new bill, House Bill 1023, which would become the Democrats' centerpiece legislation. It required applicants seeking public assistance to provide proof of residency, but exempted illegal immigrants younger than 18.

A day later, Owens made a rare appearance to testify against the bill calling it an "ineffectual" alternative to the defunct ballot proposal. He criticized the bill for not listing what services would be banned or providing a strong enforcement mechanism.

Also that day, House Majority Leader Alice Madden accused the Trailhead Group, a Republican campaign organization, of breaking the law. Trailhead had launched automated phone calls criticizing the votes of seven Democratic lawmakers. Madden said the calls constituted lobbying by the group, whose officials are not registered lobbyists. Trailhead's executive director said the calls were "issue advocacy," not lobbying. But Madden said the calls were proof that the session is "all politics."

As hardball politics were played outside the Capitol, lawmakers inside hunkered down and continued negotiating with Owens. And after five contentious days, they had a deal.

House Bill 1023, which went into effect almost immediately, on Aug. 1, forces 1 million people to prove they are legal residents and to sign an affidavit to that effect before collecting public services. Those services include retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post-secondary education, food assistance, unemployment benefits or similar payment.

The penalty for lying is misdemeanor perjury. The law does not apply to children and has several exemptions including treatment for communicable diseases and prenatal care. Federal law requires that the state provide emergency medical care and primary and secondary education.

And while legislators sent two measures to voters--one eliminating a tax deduction for wages paid to illegal immigrants and another directing the attorney general to sue for enforcement of federal immigration laws--Republican lawmakers did not get the ban on state services to illegal immigrants on the ballot.

The failure left some Republican lawmakers feeling betrayed.

"Bill Owens turned his back not just on the members of his party but on the 50,000 people who wanted to vote on [immigration reform]," Republican Senator Shawn Mitchell said after the deal was announced.

Even so, both Owens and the Democrats trumpeted the package as the toughest in the nation.

THE GEORGIA CASE

The Georgia law, which won't start taking effect until January 2007, requires those applying for taxpayer-funded benefits to verify that they are legal residents and requires them to sign an affidavit attesting to their status. The law also makes exemptions for children and emergency medical care.

It requires employers with state contracts to use a federal database to check the residency status of new hires. The law prevents employers who pay undocumented workers more than $600 a year from writing the compensation off as a business expense. And it requires employers with nonresident employees to withhold 6 percent of the employees' wages.

Both states have tougher requirements than mandated by federal law because the laws call for applicants to sign sworn affidavits before receiving services. They also require running some applicants through a federal database and establish criminal penalties for lying.

While Owens acknowledged that politics played a role in the Colorado special session, Georgia Republicans said their state's law was simply about policy.

Republican Governor Sonny Perdue's spokeswoman said politics were "absolutely not" involved.

"I would argue that this is not a political decision. This is a policy decision and it's a funding decision," said Perdue spokeswoman Heather Hedrick. "This is a policy issue that goes directly to the issue of taxpayer funded programs and whether we can sustain those programs when they're extended to people who are not eligible for those programs."

Perdue, who is running for re-election, is running television ads touting his get-tough stance on illegal immigration.

"Someone had to do something about illegal immigration and Sonny did," the ad says. "He said the first stop crossing the Georgia border shouldn't be the welfare office and passed the nation's toughest illegal immigration law. But he extended a hand to those that wanted to come legally and pay taxes. Big heart, firm hand, that's Sonny."

Illegal immigration, like transportation and education, are policy issues that his campaign will address, Hedrick said.

But Democratic lawmakers said Republicans used the immigration issue for political gain. Democratic Senator Vincent Fort of Atlanta said the GOP "got what they wanted, a wedge issue that they can run 30-second ads on and do direct mail on. It's all about votes."

Senator Sam Zamarripa, the Senate's only Hispanic lawmaker, said national anti-immigration groups targeted Georgia to "use our state, which has a history of racial intolerance, to drive home an extreme view of immigration and to also devolve it to a statewide issue."

It was clear from the beginning, Zamarripa said, that the law was going to pass so he "tried to temper it as much as possible."

But the law's author, Republican Senator Chip Rogers, said "there were no political considerations for me doing this.

"If you don't want to debate the issues that are contained in the bill, the easiest thing to do is to just simply say that it's a wedge issue when it's not," Rogers said.

"There's no question that when the people tell you to do something and you do it, the people are happier. There's no question it helps us politically. There's no question it helps the governor politically," said Rogers.

Republican Senator Don Balfour said the final votes on the omnibus bill show that 40 percent to 50 percent of Democrats joined in passing it. Senator Rogers sat down with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and Senator Zamarripa, and worked out changes that "took the edge off" certain provisions and added components addressing their concerns. For instance, the chamber wanted penalties for human trafficking, Balfour said.

"Legislators knew that a lot of people weren't going to like this," Balfour said. "But we knew citizens were concerned about the number of illegals. And because the people were with us, we knew politics would take care of itself."

Political observers have said that Colorado Democrats successfully used the special session to defuse immigration as a campaign issue. But Republicans continue to insist that the state could do more to prevent illegal immigration. Democrats, on the other hand, point to their successful collaboration with Owens to pass what they call the toughest immigration law in the country.

But the answer to perhaps the most important question--how will the issue affect voters--will have to wait until November.

WHAT THE LAWS DO

GEORGIA

The Georgia Security and Immigration Compliance Act covers many topics and was signed by the governor on April 17, 2006.

* Employment: Beginning in 2008, the law denies certain deductible business expenses unless workers have been authorized and verified to work in the United States. The law requires income tax withholding at 6 percent for those who fail to provide a correct taxpayer identification number.

* Enforcement: The law increases the penalties for human trafficking and authorizes the state to negotiate a memorandum of understanding with the U.S. Department of Justice or U.S. Department of Homeland Security regarding enforcement of federal immigration and customs laws. If a person is charged with a felony or drunk driving and confined to jail, an effort needs to be made to determine his or her nationality and legality.

* Benefits: The law establishes and enforces standards of ethics for those who provide immigration services who are not licensed attorneys. State agencies must also verify the lawful presence of anyone over the age of 18 before awarding certain public benefits. Exemptions include emergency assistance, immunizations and treatments for communicable diseases, prenatal care and post-secondary education.

COLORADO

Colorado's package of 12 bills, including two to be placed on the general election ballot, were passed in special session and signed by the governor on July 3 l, 2006.

* Employment: The packet of laws requires employers to verify the work status of their employees before applying for economic development incentive awards. They also require repayment and bar awards for five years for those who employ unauthorized workers. Employers are required to withhold 4.63 percent from the wages of an employee without a validated Social Security number, a validated taxpayer ID number or an IRS-issued taxpayer ID for non-resident aliens. Beginning in 2007, employers are required to verify the work status of each new employee within 20 days of hire. Employers who fail to submit documentation or submit false documentation "with recklesss disregard" face a penalty of $5,000 for the first offense and up to $25,000 for subsequent offenses. Agencies are required to issue and renew business licenses, permits, registration and certificates only to individuals lawfully present in the United States.

* Enforcement: The laws prohibit extortion based on threats to report a person's immigration status to law enforcement officials. They also prohibit coercion into involuntary servitude by threatening the destruction of immigration or work documents, or threatening the notification of law enforcement officials of illegal immigrant status.

* Elections: The laws create a Class 5 felony for anyone deliberately voting in an election without proper authorization.

* Benefits: State agencies are required to provide services for the investigation, identification, testing, preventive care, and treatment of epidemic or communicable diseases, including tuberculosis, HIV/AIDS, and venereal diseases to any person regardless of race, religion, gender, ethnicity, national origin or immigration status.

One bill instructs the state attorney general to pursue reimbursement from the federal government for all costs associated with illegal immigration.

Applicants for public benefits who are 18 years old or older must show a valid ID, such as a Colorado driver's license or military ID, before receiving benefits. Benefits include retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post-secondary education, food assistance and unemployment. If caught using false information or fraudulent documents in order to receive benefits, an offender could face up to a year and a half in jail and a $5,000 fin e for each offense.

One proposal on the November ballot would forbid employers from claiming employee's wages as deductible business expenses for those employees whose U.S. legal status is not verified. This measure would apply to employees hired on or after Jan. 1, 2008, and who receive more than $600 a year in wages.

The second ballot proposal instructs the state attorney general to sue the federal government to enforce federal immigration law.

Chris Frates covers politics for The Denver Post. Denver Post staff writer Mark P. Couch contributed to the reporting in this article.
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Author:Frates, Chris
Publication:State Legislatures
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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