October 13, 2008

Panel Critical of Rhode Island's Immigration Efforts

By Steve Peoples

The Providence Journal / Kathy Borchers

PROVIDENCE ––Governor Carcieri was not among the hundreds of Dominicans, Hispanic leaders and national immigration experts gathered downtown for the Dominican American National Roundtable’s annual conference this weekend.

But he was a constant topic of conversation.

In an event that drew an estimated 500 people from across the country, Rhode Island’s Republican governor — and more specifically his recent efforts to enforce federal immigration laws — played a central role.

“From a spiritual perspective, we feel like it’s a blessing to have the conference here. This state is going through a lot, especially with Governor Carcieri,” said Miguel Rivera, president of the National Coalition of Latino Ministers and Clergy, a Washington-based group that represents 16,000 churches across 34 states.

Rivera was among the speakers yesterday afternoon in a panel discussion titled “National Immigration Reform” at The Westin Providence hotel.

And while a collection of immigration experts discussed the debate in Washington, they also took the opportunity to rip state and municipal leaders, such as Carcieri, who have launched efforts to enforce federal immigration laws in recent months.

“The other side is louder … but the law is on our side,” said John Amaya, an attorney with the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund.

He said that 63 non-federal entities, such as local sheriffs and police departments, have moved to crack down on illegal immigration recently. His group has sued to block some of them.

The City of Farmer Branch, Texas, for example, last year passed a law requiring prospective apartment renters to prove citizenship. A judge has temporarily blocked the requirement, pending the outcome of a lawsuit filed by Amaya’s organization and the American Civil Liberties Union.

“State and local authorities aren’t fit to enforce immigration laws,” Amaya said. “They’re targeting people who look and sound brown.”

New York Rep. Charles B. Rangel, chairman of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee and a cofounder of the Congressional Black Caucus, said that politicians often seek to divert attention during turbulent times.

“Even if you’re a governor, if things are going bad, find somebody to beat up on and people make you a hero,” Rangel said, without mentioning Carcieri by name. “A lack of jobs and economic instability brings out the worst in all of us.”

The panelists were speaking to a largely sympathetic audience. More than half of the 75 or so who attended the discussion raised their hands when asked if they knew someone who had been deported.

Reached by phone, Carcieri’s spokeswoman, Amy Kempe, said that the governor implemented an executive order in March largely because national lawmakers failed to deal with the issue.
“Rhode Island is one of a growing number of states that are cracking down on illegal immigration,” she said. “Absent a national policy on immigration, the governor’s executive order was created to follow the existing immigration laws.”

Specifically, Carcieri’s executive order calls in part for empowering state troopers and corrections officers with immigration enforcement duties. It also requires executive-branch agencies and companies doing business with the state to use the federal E-verify program, a computerized database that screens new hires for work eligibility, and it calls for swifter deportation of prisoners found to be in this country illegally.

While many in Rhode Island applauded the governor’s willingness to take action where the federal government did not, community leaders, advocacy groups and several of the state’s top clergy members criticized the plan, prompting Carcieri to convene a panel monitoring any “unintended consequences.” Some questioned the group’s relevance, however, when a courthouse immigration raid in July happened at the same time as the commission’s first meeting.

Panelists acknowledged that a lack of federal action on immigration reform has prompted states and municipalities to take matters into their own hands.

“We’re very disappointed, especially with Democrats after they were elected to the majority in 2006,” Rivera said. “The blame is on members of Congress of both parties. … We understand that’s why communities really have a reason to go forward with these anti-immigrant policies.”
Rangel said there simply isn’t the political will at the national level to take up comprehensive immigration reform that offers a pathway to citizenship for the country’s estimated 11.8 million undocumented immigrants.

“Even the best in the Congress –– a guy like Ted Kennedy –– is talking to me about building fences,” he said, calling on spiritual leaders from all religions to pressure elected officials to act. “This thing is a little bigger than legislation … I know what the right thing is, but I need some help.”

Despite the lack of a national immigration solution, national political figures did not shy away from the weekend conference.

Guest speakers included Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and U.S. Rep. James R. Langevin. The conference program also included special messages from both presidential candidates, Barack Obama and John McCain.

Rivera said he understands where the attention is coming from: “They need our votes,” he said. “It truly means that we are a swing vote.”

A national study released earlier in the year reveals that Hispanic voters across the country are becoming a political force. There are 43,000 eligible Hispanic voters in Rhode Island alone, primarily clustered in Providence, Pawtucket and Central Falls. They represent 6 percent of all eligible voters, which is the 13th-highest rate in the nation, according to the Pew Hispanic Center.

The vast majority of Hispanic voters identify as Democrats. Perhaps that explains the criticism aimed at Rhode Island’s Republican governor.

“All of the sudden, Governor Carcieri has turned this into a heartless, heartless state,” state Sen. Juan M. Pichardo, D-Providence, said during the immigration panel discussion, noting that 32 pieces of legislation aimed at tightening immigration laws had been introduced in the previous General Assembly session.

It may be worse when lawmakers return in January, he said.

“The battle will continue,” he said, scanning the immigration experts on the panel. “But I know I got some people behind my back.”

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