LINCOLN — Getting tough on illegal immigration is politically popular.
Crafting legislation to do so is proving difficult.
State Sens. Charlie Janssen of Fremont and Tony Fulton of Lincoln are looking to introduce bills that would empower local law enforcement agencies to get more involved in the effort to identify and deport illegal immigrants.
Both said in recent interviews that they haven't yet settled on what, exactly, to introduce when the 2011 session of the Nebraska Legislature begins Jan. 5.
Other immigration issues also are likely to be on the table, including prenatal care for low-income women here illegally and in-state tuition for the children of illegal immigrants.
Janssen and Fulton said constituents are demanding action on immigration enforcement, but just what direction that should take is unclear.
“I'm certainly going to introduce something,” Janssen said in a recent interview. “I've drafted some bills. I don't think in any case that they'll be the final form.”
Legal uncertainties remain with get-tough immigration laws such as the one passed in Arizona in April. Some lawmakers question whether Nebraska needs any new legislation or can afford to give law officers a new responsibility.
Arizona's law — parts of which are on hold because of a court challenge — requires police to question people who they suspect are illegal immigrants. It requires residents to carry documentation showing they are U.S. citizens.
Proponents say such laws will deter illegal immigration, while opponents say they overstep state authority and could lead to racial profiling of legal residents.
Fulton said he may revive a proposal he has introduced in the past that would encourage local law agencies to enter into agreements with the federal government for training to enforce federal immigration laws.
“There's a place for local law enforcement to cooperate with federal authorities,” Fulton said.
Sen. Brad Ashford of Omaha, who heads the Judiciary Committee through which immigration bills must pass, said Nebraska doesn't have the border-state problems of Arizona. He said passing an Arizona-style law would unfairly target legal immigrants.
“If you're in Scottsbluff checking IDs, you're going to be checking an awful lot of IDs of Latinos of fifth-generation heritage,” Ashford said. “That, to me, smacks of what we did to the Japanese in World War II. I don't like it. I don't think it's going to do any good.”
Sen. Kathy Campbell of Lincoln, expected to become chairwoman of the Health and Human Services Committee, said passing a law like Arizona's will “create an atmosphere that we really don't want, of anger and distrust.”
Illegal immigration has heated up in Nebraska since voters in Fremont drew national attention in June by adopting an ordinance to prohibit illegal immigrants from renting or working in the city. The measure, which is being challenged in court, has not taken effect.
Perhaps the most emotional debate of the 2010 session was whether to revive a decades-long policy of funding prenatal care for low-income women here illegally. The goal is to ensure that their babies, who become citizens upon birth, are born healthy.
Another attempt to resurrect the prenatal services is likely in 2011, as well as another attempt to repeal a state law that allows children of illegal immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates to Nebraska state colleges and universities.
Gov. Dave Heineman has said Nebraska needs to consider Arizona-style legislation. Janssen, a former Fremont City Council member, said he's trying to craft a measure that borrows from Arizona while still withstanding a legal challenge.
“I don't want to just throw a bill out to throw a bill out. The people of Nebraska want something passed,” Janssen said.
The Legislature, he said, didn't go far enough when it enacted a law in 2009 that requires all companies doing business with the state to verify that their employees are here legally. The law also requires checking the immigration status of all people who receive state benefits.
Susan Smith of the Nebraskans Advisory Group, a leading advocate for tougher immigration laws, said her group wants those immigration checks expanded to include private employers, ensuring that jobs aren't going to illegal immigrants.
Smith said her group has other goals for 2011, including tougher rules for recipients of food stamps to ensure that the aid is limited to children of illegal immigrants, not their parents.
Meanwhile, groups that oppose an Arizona-style law in Nebraska have scheduled a Jan. 11 rally in Lincoln. Members of the Methodist Church have scheduled a Jan. 16 workshop in Lincoln to discuss “potentially discriminatory” effects of such legislation.
Lincoln attorney Shirley Mora James, who will participate in the workshop, said requiring local police to get involved in immigration enforcement would be expensive at a time when the state is cutting spending and cities have no extra money.
“Politicians should be concentrating on creating jobs, not spending tax dollars that we don't have,” James said.
Ashford, whose committee helped craft the 2009 immigration law, said law officers have consistently stated that they do not want new responsibilities, such as immigration enforcement, without being reimbursed for it.
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