Meeting with his counterparts from Mexico and Canada earlier this month, President Barack Obama said that he expected the Democratic-controlled Congress, after completing work on health care, energy and financial regulation, to draft comprehensive immigration reform bills this year. This time frame acknowledges that no immigration legislation will be passed until at least 2010. But as Heritage visiting fellow Matt Meyer points out in a new report there is still plenty that states can do, in the meantime,  under their own constitutionally-protected traditional police powers to tackle the problem right now.

Illegal immigration is a relatively new public policy problem. In 1980, there were only 3.5 million illegal aliens in the United States, which represented 1.5% of the total U.S. population. That year, 1.5 million illegal aliens lived in California — 6.6% of its population—making the Golden State the only state in the union whose illegal aliens comprised more than 3% of its population. It was only after the 1986 immigration reform bill, which provided amnesty to more than three million illegal aliens, that an ever increasing surge of people began entering the U.S. illegally. There are now an estimated 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States representing almost 4% of our population and 18 states have joined California with illegal populations exceeding 3%.

In response to this influx of illegal aliens — which places increasingly greater burdens on state and local budgets, law enforcement, and public infrastructure like hospitals and schools — states began exercising their constitutional powers by engaging in a flurry of activity to curtail illegal immigration. The primary areas of action were: (1) driver’s licenses and identification, (2) public benefits, (3) access to higher education benefits, (4) voting, (5) criminal sanctions, and (6) employment. But states can, and should, do more. Mayer identifies a host of state and local government policy fixes including:

  • Mandate the use of the Systemic Alien Verification for Entitlements (SAVE) system to verify entitlement to all state and local government benefits;
  • Make it a felony to falsely claim legal presence in the United States;
  • Make it a felony and a predicate racketeering crime to smuggle aliens;
  • Outlaw sanctuary cities, including day-labor sites;
  • Institute a withholding tax for all electronic funds wire transfers to foreign parties or on negotiable bank drafts and international money orders without a valid Social Security Number;
  • Ban the use of foreign identification documents to establish identity or to obtain state identification cards unless accompanied by a U.S. document that demonstrates legal presence in the United States;
  • Restrict the use of taxpayer identification numbers for purposes not authorized by the Internal Revenue Service, including identification, unless accompanied by a U.S. document that demonstrates legal presence in the United States.

Turning to what the federal government should do, Mayer concludes:

Congress should help [localities], not by passing an amnesty reform package, but by amending the statutory (not constitutional) provisions that limit the actions they can take and by increasing the legal means for foreigners to come to the United States to work. The only way to end or significantly slow illegal immigration in America is to create a mosaic of laws across the country that increase the cost of illegal immigration to a point that the supply dwindles to a trickle as the demand is filled by legal workers.

Quick Hits:

  • According to Rasmussen Reports, 70% of likely voters now favor a government that offers fewer services and imposes lower taxes over one that provides more services with higher taxes.
  • Based on CBO’s forecast for the average unemployment rate in calendar year 2010, 2.3 million fewer people will be employed on average next year than they projected in January.
  • The United States Tax Court rejected a taxpayer’s attempt to use the TurboTax defense successfully employed by Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.
  • Defending trucking deregulation in 1978, Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) reminded Americans: “The problems of our economy have occurred not as an outgrowth of laissez-faire, unbridled competition. They have occurred under the guidance of federal agencies, and under the umbrella of federal regulations.”
  • According to car-shopping service CEO Jeremy Anwyl, “Cash for clunkers distorted the market in a way that benefited the industry for four weeks. Now, the payback begins.”