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Molly Born/MEDILL

One expert questioned whether local law enforcement should extend their resources to detain undocumented immigants in Illinois.

Controversial legislation revives immigration debate in Illinois

by Molly Born
Feb 24, 2011

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.

Once again, the pro forces in the General Assembly say the federal government has fallen down on its job of enforcing immigration laws, and the state needs to take up the slack. Meanwhile, lawmakers against the bill argue that the state doesn’t have the resources to do a job that should solely rest with federal agencies.

Last Thursday HB1969 was introduced in the legislature, sparking controversy similar to one that split Arizona residents last year over state law SB1070. 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 would also 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, according to his polling estimates, which show about 80 percent of the district is in favor of the bill, he said.

But some experts expect adverse consequences statewide to passing this bill and giving local law enforcement the authority to hold individuals they suspect are undocumented.

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,” he said of local efforts. “These kinds of bills are all about symbolism.”

But 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 added, 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 five. Now an activist in Chicago's Immigrant Youth Justice League, the 22-year-old UIC student said she will join the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights to protest the legislation next 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 also 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 like 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 failed to include penalties for parents who brought their children to the U.S. illegally.

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

And by creating an environment where 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.”

And where would those undocumented residents go, many like Navoa 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 arising in tandem with the Indiana senate’s 31-18 vote Tuesday night to pass similar legislation, which sparked contentious debate among the state’s largest employers, according to reports. That bill will next move to the state’s House of Representatives, the report said.