Monday, December 24, 2007

Year-End Review from Dallas

Dianne Solis of the Dallas Morning News provides a year end review of immigration:

The Dallas suburbs of Farmers Branch and Irving erupted with rancor, fear and protests.

Farmers Branch passed a renters ordinance that was later challenged in the courts. And Irving's police department began aggressive use of a federal program to ferret out illegal immigrants who have committed crimes.

As 2008 rolls out, immigration promises to play front and center in political campaigns, law enforcement practices and human resource departments at companies around the nation, and especially in North Texas, said some key players locally and nationally.

"People aren't going to go apathetic," says Jean Towell, president of Citizens for Immigration Reform, a Dallas group that favors the crackdown. "We are not backing down. We are going to take care of what we need to take care of."

That's why Ms. Towell has made herself familiar with the details of a federal law enforcement program, called 287(g), named after its numerical placement in immigration law.

The program allows for special training of local police officers to enforce federal immigration law. No city or county yet in Texas has received 287(g) certification, but Tulsa County implemented such a program in 2007.

Collin, Denton and Dallas counties also have started using Immigration and Customs Enforcement's Criminal Alien Program, and so have the cities of Garland, Grand Prairie and Irving and Farmers Branch. Under the program, municipal agents call ICE when they believe they have someone in custody who is in the U.S. illegally and needs further questioning.

Late this year, use of the program was so extensive in Irving that ICE said it would be performing a sort of law enforcement triage, where Class C misdemeanors such as certain traffic offenses would be looked at on a case-by-case basis. This followed protests, public and private, that included pastors and the Mexican and Salvadoran consuls.

ICE spokesman Carl Rusnok said that the vigorous use of the program had stretched ICE resources.

"This does demonstrate the need for comprehensive immigration reform," Mr. Rusnok added.

Much 'screaming'

In Washington, D.C., Frank Sharry of the National Immigration Forum, a legalization proponent, said immigration has moved from policy debate to political football.

"The labor market is screaming for immigrant workers, and the political world is screaming for tough laws," Mr. Sharry said. "As that conflict gets played out ... employers might be screaming this spring for the federal government to do something."

The Texas unemployment rate stood at 4.2 percent in November, and, nationally, the rate was 4.7 percent.

Indeed, many bosses are fearful they'll be in the crosshairs in 2008, say those who follow immigration matters.

Many are watching two courtrooms – one in Phoenix and the other in San Francisco.

In Arizona, a stiff new employer sanctions law gives the state power to suspend and even revoke a business license if the employer is found to have knowingly hired an illegal immigrant.

On Friday, an Arizona federal judge refused to block the Jan. 1 start of the law. There will be a Jan. 16 hearing before that same judge on the preliminary injunction sought by the Arizona Contractors Association, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and other business groups.

"Differences are bound to arise where Congress has left it to the states to regulate a given area concurrently with the federal government," Judge Neil Vincent Wake wrote in his decision.

At issue for many businesses is whether the Arizona measure will get cloned around the country.

No-Match Rule

In San Francisco, the federal government and a cluster of groups, including the AFL-CIO, the ACLU and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, are wrangling over whether employers should intensify their policing of Social Security numbers. Employers receive a so-called No-Match letter from the Social Security Administration when an employee's name doesn't match the Social Security number the government has on file.

"Sometimes there is an innocent explanation for this discrepancy, such as a clerical error," said Homeland Security chief Michael Chertoff in a statement in early December. "But sometimes the discrepancy reflects the fact that the employee in question is an illegal alien. When employers receive such No-Match letters, they are on notice that the employees in question may not be authorized to work."

Under the No-Match Rule, no employer should terminate an employee based upon a No-Match letter alone, said Mr. Chertoff. But no boss should ignore the letter either. The No-Match rule gives employers and employees 90 days to correct discrepancies.

The AFL-CIO and others argue that the rules place too many burdens on businesses.

Dallas Chamber of Commerce officials couldn't be reached for comment on the two issues. But the chamber has supported a comprehensive overhaul of the laws that would include a guest worker program, a "workable solution" for those illegal immigrants already here, and measures to reduce backlogs for employment and family-based immigrant visas.

Mayor's stance

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, a former construction firm executive, has taken a similar position, and as a candidate this spring, he said he would oppose any renters' ordinances similar to those in Farmers Branch.

"Immigration will continue to be an issue" in 2008, Mr. Leppert said. "You haven't seen any progress in Congress, so there are still issues that have to be dealt with on a federal level. It still has to be on the agenda.

"We need a comprehensive approach, and that needs to come from the federal government."

Presidential campaign

Immigration already is dominating the presidential campaign, with candidates eager to show they'll take a tough stance on the issue.

"Secure the border" is a catchphrase. Some support extending the border wall and fencing that already exists in small portions of California, Arizona and Texas. And many call for enforcement of existing employer sanctions against the bosses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants. That measure was passed in the 1986 overhaul of federal immigration laws.

In the Dallas County sheriff's race, candidate Charlie Richmond, a Mesquite police lieutenant, is hammering hard on illegal immigrants, arguing they are behind a crime wave. The primary is March 4, and early voting starts Feb. 19.

"If the federal government is not going to take care of that border down there, you have to do something here," Mr. Richmond said. "National security starts at home."

Mr. Richmond, one of several challengers to incumbent Sheriff Lupe Valdez, supports implementing the 287(g) training program in Dallas County for sheriff's deputies. He calls Irving's use of ICE's Criminal Alien Program only "a first step."

Mexico's top diplomat in North Texas, Consul General Enrique Hubbard Urrea, takes on all comers. He tries to answer his angry e-mail, and those that come up to him to complain about illegal immigrants when they see the diplomatic plates on his vehicle. The majority of illegal immigrants don't commit crime; they avoid crime, he said.

'A labor problem'

"We don't think immigration is a national security problem; it is a labor problem," Mr. Hubbard added.

Kenneth Walder, a construction worker, agrees immigration is a labor issue. And immigrant labor is undercutting his pay, said Mr. Walder, 42, who was born in the U.S. He arrived at the Plano Day Labor Center at 5:30 a.m. Friday and nearly five hours later hadn't been chosen for a job. Presidential candidates should focus on immigration, Mr. Walder said.  Click here for the full story.

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