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Immigration Sparks Passion Not Action in Legislature

By Marshall Griffin, KWMU

Jefferson City, MO – Republican leaders in Missouri have made illegal immigration one of the top priorities of the 2008 legislative session. Now that the halfway point has arrived, how far along are they in moving their agenda? KWMU's Marshall Griffin gives us a progress report.

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In 2007, lawmakers approved just one piece of legislation related to illegal immigration: It was a ballot initiative that would make English the official language of state government in Missouri. Voters will get to decide that question in November, unless Governor Matt Blunt chooses to set a separate election date for it. This year, 25 bills have been filed in the General Assembly regarding illegal immigration 16 in the House and 9 in the Senate. So far, only one has passed out of either chamber. House members last week, in a vote split along party lines, approved a bill requiring state universities to prove they have not knowingly enrolled illegal immigrants as students, as a condition for receiving state funds. The debate became spirited at times, as evidenced by this exchange between Democrat Jeff Roorda of Jefferson County and the bill's sponsor, Republican Jerry Nolte of Clay County:

Roorda: The immigrants that are the target of this sort of wedge issue.
Nolte: How do you know they're targeted?
Roorda: legislation have brown skin, gentleman, there's no doubt in my mind
Nolte: Show me the part in that bill where it talks about skin color. The only thing is legal or illegal as far as I'm concerned, if you brought in one of your relatives from England.
Roorda: Show me the part in the Jim Crow law that talked about skin color.

Roorda does support, however, cracking down on employers who hire undocumented workers. Another House bill that's made progress would penalize city or county governments that declare themselves sanctuaries for illegal immigrants. Those enacting sanctuary policies would be barred from receiving grant money from all state agencies and departments until such policies are revoked. Janet Renner of the group Missourians against Illegal Immigration testified in favor of the bill before a House committee:

Renner: A sanctuary city does serve as a magnet to bring illegals into the city, or, of the state if they know laws aren't going to be enforced, that's just, you know, a get out of jail free card.'

Joan Suarez with the group Missouri Immigrant and Refugee Advocates opposes the bill. She told the House Special Committee on Immigration that barring sanctuary policies could make it harder for police to fight crime:

Suarez: When they are witness to, or are victimized by crime or violence, they are as much less likely to report that incident to authorities if they face fear of deportation.

The House Special Committee on Immigration approved the bill, but it has not yet been scheduled for a debate by the full House. Suarez suggests many of these bills are being driven by election year politics:

Suarez: The undocumented population in Missouri is so small that it seems, it just seems all out of proportion that the hottest issue going in the Missouri Legislature, even more than health care in this session is the question of immigration and you have to ask, how much of this is smoke screen, how much of this is just kind of election rhetoric.

But Senate President Pro-tem and Republican candidate for Attorney General Michael Gibbons says it's the people of Missouri who want something done about illegal immigration:

Gibbons: I think Missouri people are generous, they want to be helpful to people who are here lawfully, but they're not interested in subsidizing people who are here illegally I gotta think that regardless of Republican or Democrat, they're hearing from their constituents that it's about time that somebody took some action they couldn't get any action out of the federal government, at least they're getting some action out of us.

And more action is expected during the second half of the 2008 session. House Speaker Rod Jetton says they'll take up bills focusing on employers and law enforcers, along with bills designed to block illegal immigrants from receiving welfare benefits.

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