The House State Government Committee holds a second day of hearings today on more than a dozen proposals aimed to halt what Representative Daryl Metcalfe (R-Butler County) calls the "invasion" of illegal immigrants. One of the measures would allow local law enforcement to verify the citizenship of someone they've stopped for breaking a law whose immigration status "should be reasonably suspected." Police could then arrest those who were determined to be undocumented.
Berks County Sheriff Eric Weaknecht said police officers would be able to address the problem of illegal immigration when federal officers do not. "The real problem I have is that we have a law. People are breaking it," said Weaknecht. "And we are basically handcuffed in doing our job. And that's where I have a real problem."
Robert Najmulski, a former police officer with the Federation for American Immigration Reform, said local law enforcement should be enabled to detain illegal immigrants because federal immigration enforcement isn't strong enough.
"It is no secret that the current administration in Washington, D.C. is failing to secure our borders and is working hard to undermine enforcement at the federal level," said Najmulski. "As a result, it is the states' federal burden, each individual state is burdened with the increasing costs of criminal activity of illegally present persons."
Another bill is patterned after the Arizona law requiring businesses to use the federal E-Verify program to check that their employees are authorized to work in the U.S. Metcalfe, sponsor of the E-Verify bill, says it would allow businesses to check the identities of their employees, as sometimes they give false information to their employers.
Kay Hollabaugh owns an Adams County fruit farm that relies on legal immigrant workers. She testified a fellow fruit farmer in Tucson has stopped checking workers against the E-Verify system because it takes too much time.
"The crops are hanging on the trees," said Hollabaugh. "They're ready to pick. They're in a desperate situation. So they're not paying into their tax base anymore, they're being paid cash, under the table."
Committee chair Metcalfe said these measures are not about immigration. "This is about dealing with our illegal immigrant problem." A report by the Pew Hispanic Center shows the number of illegal immigrants in the U.S. dropped from 12 million in 2007 to 11.1 million in 2009 as the economy weakened.
Faith leaders and civil rights activists oppose the measures. Josh Cohen, with the Anti-Defamation League, urged lawmakers to keep a respectful tone during the hearings. "When a society begins to demonize a group as less deserving of rights, less worthy, less human, less equal, then discrimination, exploitation, and worse can follow," said Cohen.
Opponents say the proposals are distractions and their passage would contribute to a state-by-state patchwork of immigration laws, instead of a much-needed overhaul to national immigration policy.