Many states have their own regulations governing illegal immigrants. And five states have introduced bills similar to Arizona's SB 1070, which is the target of a federal lawsuit.
Colorado restricts illegal immigrants from receiving in-state tuition. Nebraska requires verification of immigration status to obtain public benefits. In Tennessee, knowingly presenting a false ID card to get a job is a misdemeanor.
Arizona's strict new law has generated the most controversy, but there are hundreds of immigration-related laws on the books across the country. The laws regulate employment, law enforcement, education, benefits and healthcare.
The U.S. Department of Justice filed a lawsuit last week to stop the Arizona law from taking effect July 29, saying that immigration policy is a national responsibility and "a patchwork of state laws will only create more problems than it solves." But according to experts, that is precisely what exists.
In fact, the number of immigration-related laws and resolutions enacted by states surged to 333 last year, up from 32 in 2005, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. And during the first three months of 2010, lawmakers introduced more than 1,000 bills and resolutions, though it's too early to tell how many will become law. Bills on topics such as employment verification and driver's license requirements are on the table in 45 states.
"Lawmakers are frustrated with the federal inaction," said Ann Morse, program director for the organization's Immigrant Policy Project. "Until the federal government acts, states will still see this as an area where they see the need to play a leadership role."
Already, the organization says, legislators in five states — South Carolina, Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Rhode Island and Michigan — have introduced similar bills to Arizona's SB 1070, which requires police to check the immigration status of people they lawfully stop and suspect are in the country illegally. As of last month, six resolutions had been passed in five states regarding SB 1070 — four opposing it and two supporting it. The law has prompted lawsuits, protests and boycotts.
"I frankly understand the position Arizona finds itself in," said Virginia state Sen. John Watkins. "We all live in elected republics. The pressure gets put on, especially in tough economic times."
Watkins said he is frustrated that Congress cannot get beyond the politics on immigration. "The federal government has walked away from its responsibility. They are the reason states are scrambling."