JEFFERSON CITY — Missouri’s gubernatorial candidates are competing in a one-up-manship contest to appear tough on illegal immigrants. But their attention to the issue may be disproportionate to the actual problem.
And some Hispanics living and working in Missouri legally say the politicians’ target on illegal immigrants is splattering onto them.
Republican Gov. Matt Blunt and his Democratic challenger, Attorney General Jay Nixon, each announced a series of initiatives against illegal immigrants last week. Their actions underscore how illegal immigration has become a hot issue in U.S. politics.
As Congress has failed to take action, state executives and lawmakers have sought to stand the gap. In 2007, state legislatures introduced more than 1,500 bills on immigration, 244 of which became law — triple the figures from a year before, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The conference forecasts immigration as the No. 2 issue for states in 2008, behind only budget concerns.
In that context, it’s not surprising that illegal immigration also is figuring prominently in Missouri’s 2008 gubernatorial campaign.
Blunt stepped-up his efforts against illegal immigrants in August, when he directed the Missouri State Highway Patrol to check the residency status of everyone it incarcerates. Since then, Blunt said last week, the patrol has turned over 126 illegal immigrants to federal authorities.
Nixon, meanwhile, announced last week that a Lake of the Ozarks developer who used illegal immigrants has been ordered to pay $980,000 in back taxes, fines and court costs.
Those are perhaps the two candidates’ most concrete accomplishments in their battle against illegal immigrants. But they both have rolled out other tough-sounding policies.
Last month, Blunt proposed to make it illegal to provide driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants. The reality is that procedures used by the Missouri Department of Revenue already bar illegal immigrants from getting driver’s licenses.
Similarly, Blunt proposed a law last week to ban “sanctuary cities” that don’t allow their police to check people’s immigration status. But Blunt acknowledged he didn’t know of any such cities in Missouri.
Blunt also proposed laws last week against transporting illegal immigrants for illegal labor, raising penalties for state contractors who employ illegal immigrants and requiring public employers to verify the immigration status of newly hired workers through a federal database.
Nixon responded two days later by proposing a law giving the attorney general new powers to ask a court to shut down businesses that repeatedly hire illegal immigrants. Although details were scant, a Nixon spokesman said the intent was to target businesses that don’t take “appropriate and reasonable steps” to make sure their workers are legal.
From their flurry of proposals, Missourians might get the impression that illegal immigration is a big problem in this state.
The Pew Hispanic Center, a Washington-based research organization, used census figures to estimate there are 12 million illegal immigrants in the United States — an amount more than twice the population of Missouri. But barely one-half of 1 percent of those illegal immigrants live in Missouri, according to the center’s state-by-state estimates.
With an estimated 35,000 to 65,000 illegal immigrants, Missouri ranked 31st nationally in the center’s study released last year.
Yet “you have two campaigns who both believe they can get traction on this issue, and our community — the Hispanic community — is caught in between,” said Jorge Riopedre, of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metropolitan St. Louis.
Although it may not be the intent of Blunt and Nixon, what “is very tangible to the Hispanic community is the pot of hate and intolerance is being stirred here,” Riopedre said.
When employers and police start wondering if every Hispanic-looking person is here illegally, they are more likely to pass them over for jobs or pull them over in their vehicles, Riopedre said.
Even though Missouri’s Hispanic population has risen by well more than one-third since the 2000 census, Hispanics still comprise fewer then 3 percent of Missouri’s 5.8 million residents.
As a result, Missouri politicians can safely propose tough-sounding policies against illegal immigrants without alienating a sizable portion of the electorate.
But politicians might also want to remember that Missouri elections often are decided by small margins. For example, Blunt’s margin of victory was just 2.9 percentage points in 2004.
Seeking to fight back against the political onslaught, Riopedre recently helped form “HisPAC,” a Hispanic political action committee that plans to contribute to like-minded candidates in next year’s elections.
Based on their current posturing, neither Blunt nor Nixon should expect to get any of that money.