While Congress is constantly chipping away at the issue of illegal immigration, the topic has been a novelty for the Louisiana Legislature until the current session. It's now a difficult subject to ignore, lawmakers say, especially in post-Katrina times, when construction is on an upswing around the state and cheap labor is plentiful.
But the policy concerns aren't confined to labor issues. For example, Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-New Orleans, wants local courts or municipalities to pick up the cost of providing court interpreters for non-English-speaking persons in criminal cases.
Meanwhile, GOP Rep. Brett Geymann of Lake Charles finds himself in the precarious situation of facing off against the Roman Catholic bishops of Louisiana. Geymann is pushing a set of bills that would criminalize the act of harboring illegal immigrants, even if the violator believes the aliens' status is legal, and require law enforcement to determine citizenship or immigration status at the time of booking. Penalties reach up to a year in prison and $1,000 in fines. Similar laws already are on the books in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma.
Danny Loar, a lobbyist for the Catholic bishops, quoted scripture and referred to Jesus' treatment of minorities when the House Criminal Justice Committee heard the legislation. Since Catholic charities offer job development, family crisis intervention and legal assistance to aliens, he says a priest could theoretically end up behind bars for fulfilling his ecclesiastical mission. "The church has a long history of working with immigrants, legal and illegal. We don't ask," Loar says. "We're here to help the poor."
Coastal lawmakers also expressed concerns that shipbuilders, ports and contractors that inadvertently employ illegal aliens could find themselves in violation of the law if paperwork they completed properly is in the process of being renewed. Geymann acknowledges that as a gray area. He already has moved to exempt charitable and religious organizations from his bill.
Assumption Parish Rep. Joe Harrison, a Republican freshman, is taking more of a futuristic approach. He wants the state to require electronically scanned biometric cards for illegal immigrants working in Louisiana. Some hail the cards as a technological marvel. They already are used in some other states, but they have triggered fiery congressional debates.
Under Harrison's bill, an employer could swipe an immigrant's card and know instantly whether he or she is allowed to work. Louisiana law already provides several exceptions for unauthorized foreigners. They can take on gigs that few others want, such as jobs related to agriculture, forestry, horticultural, animal husbandry and livestock. Harrison's bill would allow the cards to hold other information, such as fingerprints, country of origin, physical attributes and more.
Harrison says Louisiana needs biometric cards because they could serve as a roadblock to new and re-emerging diseases that have been linked to the flow of illegal immigrants. "We've already experienced a resurgence of tuberculosis from South America, and it has been a tremendous drain on our resources and medical community," he says. "This proposed system would likewise serve as a screening for these diseases."
Opponents have voiced constitutional concerns and questioned whether the feds not the state should be taking up this issue. More than anything else, money tops the list of worries. Last month, before the House Labor Committee temporarily shelved his bill for the second time, Harrison urged lawmakers to consider his proposal as part of Gov. Bobby Jindal's ongoing push to revamp the Department of Labor.
Agency bureaucrats, however, gave the notion a chilly reception. Deputy Labor Secretary Tia Edwards says the biometric card system could cost the department, which would be charged with promulgating rules and overseeing the process, as much as $129,000 annually. "We do have some concerns," she says.
An economic forecast prepared by the Legislative Fiscal Office put up a similar number, estimating 2,500 cards would need to be produced at a cost of $125,000. That figure, though, doesn't take into account the additional manpower and positions the department would need, meaning two additional staffers, overtime pay, and money for lawyers and equipment. In short, Harrison's bill has a tough journey ahead, but it's still playing a huge role in the current immigration law drama.
Despite hefty constitutional concerns, Louisiana isn't the only state taking a swing at sovereignty issues right now. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), more than 1,100 immigration-related bills were introduced in 44 state legislatures during the first quarter of this year. NCSL reports that the top three issues were law enforcement, employment and driver's licenses or other forms of identification.
Not surprisingly, it may all be happening because of polling numbers and the public's demand for action. "The number of immigration-related measures demonstrates states' willingness to respond to the public's concerns in a time when Congress won't," the NCSL report says.
Louisiana's policy flirtations are nowhere near over. After all, lawmakers don't have to go home until June 23. Consider the following developments:
Geymann has another bill that would prohibit state agencies from contracting with businesses that employ illegal immigrants.
Rep. Patrick Williams, D-Shreveport, wants to establish new procedures for investigating the employment of illegal immigrants and sanction employers who break the law.
GOP Rep. Tim Burns of Mandeville has legislation that would ban illegal immigrants from renting property.
The Teachers' Retirement System of Louisiana is the target of Rep. Joel Robideaux of Lafayette, who has no party affiliation. He wants to allow teachers with a J1 visa, given to those in an internship/exchange program, to be part of the system.
Two nonbinding resolutions would request that Congress increase penalties for employers who hire unauthorized aliens and direct the state Legislature's labor committees to investigate the economic impacts of illegal immigration on Louisiana.
All of these measures await their first hearings and promise to foster more heated debates. While the issue prompts questions about everything from labor to religion to constitutional rights, it also stirs nationalistic emotions on both sides.
That's why Harrison and others say they're stepping up to fill a void left by Congress. To them, it's about protecting the homeland, even though others say it's an issue of opportunity. "All I'm doing is trying to protect the sovereignty of this state," Harrison says. "Things are getting way out of hand, and it's time that we stand up and do something about it."
Jeremy Alford can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.