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Ala.'s New Immigration Bill Tougher Than Ariz.'s

MICHEL MARTIN, host: I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News.

The doors to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau open next month, but Congress is still fighting over how much power it should have. So, what will this agency really be able to do? We'll talk about that in a few minutes.

But first, we take a look at immigration, which was front and center at the Republican presidential candidates debate last night in New Hampshire. We want to talk about how states are handling immigration. With Congress unable to act on immigration reform, leaders of several states are taking matters into their own hands. Alabama's Republican governor Robert Bentley is the latest. He signed a strict immigration enforcement bill last week.

We wanted to hear more about this, so we caught up with Brian Lyman. He's a reporter with The Montgomery Advertiser who's been covering this. He's with us from The Advertiser's newsroom in Alabama. Brian, thanks for joining us.

BRIAN LYMAN: Thanks for having me.

MARTIN: Tell us exactly what this law would do.

LYMAN: The law is a very sweeping anti-illegal immigration bill. Among other things it does is it makes it a state crime to be in the state without documentation, requires schools to collect information on the citizenship or immigration status of the students, and it also requires all businesses in the state to enroll in the federal E-Verify program.

MARTIN: To verify whether the people that they hire have the legal right to work in this country. How does this legislation compare with the other bills that we've heard about from Arizona and Georgia that got so many headlines? And we know that Arizona and Georgia's laws are already being challenged in court and it appears that the Arizona case is eventually headed to the Supreme Court. So much attention to this legislation. Was Alabama's move based on that?

LYMAN: Alabama's law incorporates many of Arizona's - the language in Arizona is law verbatim. The language, for instance, entrapment and the hiring of certain workers comes almost unaltered from the Arizona bill. It does add a couple of things that are not in the Arizona bill. For instance, the verification of student citizenship or immigration status, but it is very, very similar to an SB1070.

MARTIN: Now, one of the complaints about the Arizona and Georgia bills is that this would inevitably lead to racial profiling because it required a suspicion of questions about status. And so, the question people have is what is going to be the basis of this reasonable suspicion? Is it going to be anybody who's brown, anybody who doesn't have an expensive car? I mean, what is that?

So, the question I would have is that since the Alabama law came after these, did they make any effort in drafting the law to address some of the objections that people have made in other states?

LYMAN: There are provisions in the law. In fact, there are several paragraphs in the law that specifically ban the use of racial profiling in enforcing the law. However, that reasonable suspicion language in the bill has drawn criticism from opponents of the law who say that this law is simply unenforceable without racial profiling, because there are no provisions in the law that say exactly how a law enforcement officer is supposed to use reasonable suspicion in determining or judging the immigration or citizenship status of somebody they stop.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

We're talking about state immigration laws with Brian Lyman. He's a state capital reporter with The Montgomery Advertiser. Alabama's Republican Governor Robert Bentley just signed a tough new immigration enforcement bill last week. It's being described as the toughest in the country.

Now, we want to get a national perspective, so we're going to bring Matt Barreto into the conversation. He's a pollster with Latino decisions. He's a professor of political science at the University of Washington. He's with us from Seattle Met. Thanks for joining us once again.

MATT BARRETO: Sure thing.

MARTIN: Now, immigration was front and center last night at the Republican presidential candidates' debate in Manchester, New Hampshire. One of the candidates Newt Gingrich, former speaker of the house, former lawmaker from Georgia, congressman, had this to say.


NEWT GINGRICH: And first of all, you control the border. We can ask the National Guard to go to Iraq. We ask the National Guard to go to Kuwait. We ask the National Guard to go to Afghanistan. Somehow we would have done more for American security if we had had the National Guard on the border. But, you know...

MARTIN: Most of the candidates speaking last night had, you know, forceful comments about the need to crackdown on illegal immigration. So, Matt, you know, it's one of these issues that's been so much a part of our political debate for years now. Has the - what's the word I'm looking for - has the action moved to the states in the absence of a federal response?

BARRETO: Yeah. I think that's part of what's happening here. And you sense that in the frustration of the voice of the speaker when he made those comments. You know, equating the border, and presumably he was talking about the U.S.-Mexico border as he went on to say later in the debate, with these other international wars and sending military personnel there. And so, there's a real sense of frustration. And I think that the federal government is to blame for that.

And so, many states and many governors are looking at issues related to immigration in their state and saying, hey, if the federal government isn't going to do something, we want to try to start addressing some of these issues at the state level.

And, unfortunately, what we've been seeing in the last year or so is that many of those pieces of legislation getting passed and signed into law are very, very strict and are casting a very, very white net that are not just targeting or focusing on undocumented immigrants but it could be something, as you mentioned earlier, that does invoke racial profiling. And these states are doing many things that bring up ordinary citizens who may just be friends with undocumented immigrants and they could be criminally liable just for sort of having a friendship with an undocumented immigrant.

MARTIN: Well, Matt, how is this playing out politically? I mean, are these measures popular and with whom are they popular?

BARRETO: Well, you know, if you look at the general polls of the American public, there's a little bit of a split. So, right in the wake of the Arizona bill, there were polls that suggested that voters supported that, that they were supportive of the seat of Arizona passing that legislation.

At the same time, many of the exact same individuals who supported the Arizona immigration law also supported the federal government acting on immigration that would provide a solution to the undocumented immigrants who are living here including a pathway to citizenship.

And so, I don't characterize a lot of the polling numbers that I see or even the opinions that I hear as (unintelligible) anti-immigrant. There are people who are upset with the federal government for not moving on immigration and saying now we need some sort of solution.

And a lot of times these same folks who might support the new Alabama law would also support some sort of policy that would provide either a guest worker program or for legal status for those undocumented workers who are here and contributing to the state's economy or to the national economy.

MARTIN: Brian, one of the things I was interested in is the fact that a number of these aggressive moves have come in Southern states like, of course, you know, Arizona got quite a lot of attention. Utah, Florida, and Texas also had bills that were debated in this legislative session, but South Carolina, Alabama, New Mexico, Georgia seem to have been following the track laid down by Arizona.

And I was wondering why do you think that is? I mean, has the immigrant population really grown that much in the South and has there been any, was there any push back against this legislative initiative by the governor?

LYMAN: The immigrant community in Alabama has grown considerably over the past 10 years. I can tell you here in Montgomery, there is a sizeable Korean community. But particularly in Northern Alabama, large communities of Mexican and Guatemalan immigrants have emerged over the past 10 years.

Now, all that said, Alabama's immigrant population is still very small. It's about 2.9 percent of the entire population. The move for this bill - this has been very popular with Republicans in the state for the past several years to do a bill that would address immigration or undocumented immigrants in the state.

Republicans made a bill like this one of the centerpieces of their handshake with Alabama, which was a platform they ran on, which helped them win control of the state legislature in last November's elections. And it proved to be very popular with voters here.

BARRETO: This is a very conservative state. And immigration issues like this obviously play very well with conservative voters. And I think the politicians in the state saw it that way.

MARTIN: And what about the advocacy groups who say that the bill is just, I mean, setting aside their complaint that it's mean spirited, that it will lead to racial profiling, they said that you cannot make it a crime to exist. Because they say it makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant in Alabama. And they say you just simply can't do that. That will not pass constitutional muster. What's been the response to that?

BARRETO: Those provisions were in the Arizona law and those have already been staid by federal courts. There will be some legal challenges going on there. I think if you speak to supporters of the this law, if you brought up that provision, that they'll simply say, well, it's, you know, it's a crime to be in this country without proper documentation or without proper papers. And certainly that would be the argument that they would make.

MARTIN: Matt, let's finally - a final question to you, is let's take the other side of the question. How are these aggressive moves on immigration, as we saw in the debate last night, seem to be popular with the Republican base? But the Republican Party is becoming more diverse. And I'm interested on how these measures - how are they affecting the standing of the Republican Party with Latino voters who do have the right to vote?

BARRETO: Yeah. No, that's an excellent observation. And there are a number of groups that are more conservative or Republican Latino groups who are speaking out against these issues in the South, but mostly in the Southwest with our large numbers of Latinos and saying, hey, we're conservative on some other issues. But we've got to draw the line here. This is not something that we stand for for villainizing our community and creating these policies. And so we find very, very strong opposition to these state laws across party lines.

And in our last poll, immigration has become the top issue that Latino voters of all parties want their policymakers in Washington, D.C. to address. It's been getting a lot of attention. The president has been doing outreach and giving speeches. And voters are now saying, hey, let's do something about this. Let's not just let the states run rampant with these laws.

MARTIN: Well, just to clarify. You've got new poll results just out from your June 2011 tracking poll of Latino registered voters. Does that indicate an advantage to either political party in addressing this issue?

BARRETO: Well, Latino voters are upset with both political parties. On the one hand, our data suggests that a majority of Latinos think the Republicans are blocking immigration reform. And at the same time, when we ask a different question, we find a majority of Latino voters think that the Democrats are not pushing the issue of immigration reform, that they're just ignoring it. And so both parties certainly have some answering to do when it comes to Latino voters.

Now, both parties do need to come to grips with the Latino vote, understand exactly what the issues are, and really stop scapegoating immigrants as someone who's a problem with either security or the economy in the United States. It just simply isn't the case. And Latino voters appear to be very, very frustrated in the latest polling data.

MARTIN: Matt Barreto is a professor of political science at the University of Washington. He's also a pollster with Latino Decisions. He was kind enough to join us from his home office in Seattle. Brian Lyman is a state capital reporter at the Montgomery Advertiser. He joined us from the newsroom in Montgomery. Thank you both so much for joining us.

BARRETO: Thanks a lot.

LYMAN: Sure thing, Michel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.