New State Officials Come Out Swinging on Immigration Policy

Felipe Matos is just one activist dealing with the immigration debate's shift toward states.

By Jamilah King Jan 11, 2011

Just as Seth Freed Wessler predicted last week, local politicians haven’t wasted any time in getting to work on a slew of anti-immigrant bills across the country. In places like Florida, Maine and Rhode Island, lawmakers are citing Congress’ failure to pass any sort of immigration reform as a green light to move forward with regressive policies. And as the debate swings more locally, it is becoming more intensely personal.

Felipe Matos knows this all too well. At the end of last year, Julianne Hing wrote about how Matos had bravely faced off with the KKK during his time as a member of the Trail of Dreams, a march through southern states to dramatize the need for immigration reform for undocumented youth. But that was at least partly to be expected when you throw yourself into the geographic hot spots of one of the country’s fiercest political debates. What Matos didn’t expect happened last Friday in a town hall meeting in Palm Beach, Fla., where residents had gathered to discuss if the state should adopt an Arizona-style SB 1070 law. 

In a meeting that swelled with over 200 people and ultimately made local headlines, Matos faced one of the fiercest anti-immigrant crowds he’s known. "To me, it’s way more personal now because when I was walking through Georgia, I was not home. Over here, just two hours away from my house, people are calling a ‘rat,’ " said Matos, who now works as an organizer with

While the majority of panelists spoke pointedly against any such anti-immigrant legislation, news accounts claim that statements on both sides were equally heated and "provocative." Matos says at least one commenter on a news report advancing the event urged attendants to bring their guns. (The comment has since been removed.)

Florida is one of several states considering Arizona copycat legislation. And with newly elected golden child Sen. Marco Rubio in favor of the bill, along with a newly-seated governor who won office in part by campaigning for such a bill, local activists are in an uphill battle.

But it’s not just in Florida where heated immigration rhetoric is on the rise. As Wessler reported last week, Congress’ failure to pass any immigration reform bill has shifted the debate’s center to the state and local level where anti-immigration laws have flourished and are expected to continue to thrive over the next two years.

Conservative local lawmakers have consistently pointed to Washington’s inaction on immigration enforcement when passing new anti-immigrant laws. But ironically, the shift is driven largely by Washington’s active devolution of immigration enforcement to state and local law enforcement over the past several years. The Obama administration has continued that trend. The result is that the country is now covered in a lattice work of increasingly hostile localized laws and practices that are fueling an intensifying confrontation between immigrant rights advocates and anti-immigrant policy makers in state and local governments.

That’s exactly what’s happening in places like Florida, Maine and Rhode Island.

One of Gov. Rick Scott’s first acts in office was to mandate that all state employees pass through E-verify, a federal program in which employers check their employees’ Social Security numbers to make sure they’re legally allowed to work in the U.S.

In Maine, newly elected Gov. Paul LePage’s first act in office was to end the state’s executive order that barred state employees from asking about immigration status. The Portland Press Herald reports that LePage made his decision because the previous order "may have created the impression that Maine was a so-called ‘sanctuary state’ for those who are in the United States without lawful status." 

In Texas, Gov. Rick Perry (a likely GOP presidential candidate) included abolishing sanctuary cities in the state among his emergency items for the new legislative session.

On the other hand, last week Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee ordered that his state pull out of 287g, a controversial program that gave state troopers the power to work as immigration enforcement agents. Though the program was aimed at detaining and deporting undocumented immigrants who were convicted of serious crimes, most were deported for minor crimes, like speeding tickets. 

According to The Providence Journal, lawmakers in the state are already planning to restore some version of the program through a new "Illegal Immigration Control Act." And Rhode Island Attorney General Peter F. Kilmartin is moving forward with plans to join Secure Communities, an equally controversial program that allows law enforcement to check the immigration status of anyone who’s arrested and taken to jail.

As the center of the immigration debate moves to the local level, so has its activism. Matos plans to continue his work against the new legislation, along with other groups like the Florida Immigrant Coalition and Students Working for Equal Rights.

"When a bill like this gets introduced, the fear in the community increases, and the hate in the community just spreads," Matos says. "And it becomes okay to be very racist."