Local governments need latitude on illegals

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, April 30, 2008

We are all descendants of immigrants, who long ago migrated from Europe and other parts of the world to start a new life in this great country.

Today, America is still the land of opportunity and freedom and, every year, we continue to welcome legal immigrants from all over the globe. Many of these folks have become a great asset to our economy, dedicated leaders in our communities and have worked hard to adapt to our language and traditions.

Unfortunately, the positive impact of our country’s legal immigrants has been overshadowed by the growing problem of illegal immigration and the call for tighter security at our nation’s borders. The influx of illegal aliens has put a tremendous strain on limited state and local resources, including our schools, social programs, law enforcement and prisons. In fact, a study by the Center for Immigration Studies found that families of undocumented immigrants cost the United States an estimated $2.5 billion in Medicaid in 2002, and as the illegal immigrant population continues to grow, so to will the financial burden on Medicaid and other programs.

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In recent years, my colleagues and I have heard from frustrated constituents and local leaders, concerned about the impact illegal aliens are having on their communities and what they see as a lack of action to address the problem. While the responsibility of securing our borders ultimately rests with federal authorities, earlier this month, the Ohio Senate passed two bills designed to encourage stronger enforcement of immigration laws at the federal level, while giving local law enforcement additional tools to help federal officials apprehend illegal aliens. I am a cosponsor of both measures.

On April 16, the Senate approved, with overwhelming bipartisan support, Senate Concurrent Resolution 16, which calls on

the President of the United States and the United States Congress to “secure our nation’s borders and to aggressively enforce all existing federal immigration laws.” This sends a strong message from the General Assembly to leaders in Washington that Ohioans are concerned about the impact of illegal immigration and want to see action now to address the issue.

At the same time, the Senate also voted to give local law enforcement greater leverage to assist in this enforcement effort. Currently, a county sheriff has the authority to arrest and detain illegal immigrants, who violate a provision of criminal law. However, this authority does not extend to civil provisions in the law, including the ability to take custody of persons being detained for deportation. So, if a county sheriff were to come across a person suspected of being an illegal alien, because it is a civil offense, there is little that they could do except call federal authorities and hope they have the resources to respond in a timely fashion.

Senate Bill 260, which was also approved by the Senate on April 16, would authorize a county sheriff, at the discretion of their local boards of county commissioners, to take custody of persons being detained for deportation. In addition, the bill would give county sheriffs the opportunity to assist in the investigation, apprehension, and detection of aliens who violate criminal or civil provisions of federal immigration law should federal immigration officials ask for their assistance.

Being an American citizen is a privilege that we too often take for granted, but we cannot give it away to those who have not sworn allegiance to the U.S. While, in many cases, the state is limited in what it can do to address the illegal immigration problem, it is my hope that SCR 16 and SB 260 will be part of a larger movement to enact a strong, common sense immigration policy that stresses security at our borders, while allowing those immigrants that follow the rules to become citizens.

John Carey is a member of the Ohio Senate and represents the 17th District.