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Border Politics 

Members of Louisiana's congressional delegation are hitching their wagons to anti-immigration bills, many with an eye toward business and industry. The drivers, however, are probably more political than anything else.

Online forums are interesting places to gauge public opinion in a specific area. It's like breezing into a Waffle House unseen and eavesdropping on the talk of the town. Consider some of the comments made on a recent one hosted by the Houma Daily Courier; most of the postings appeared the day after a story was published detailing an anti-immigration bill co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Charlie Melancon, a Democrat who represents the Bayou Parishes. Wolfdog: 'Thumbs up for Melancon. He's got my vote next time. And I am a Republican."

Jerry Asay: 'Yup, I would vote for him too, if he keeps his word and really tries to do something. Most of us "general public' are getting fed up with the illegal immigration thing and want our leaders to really do something and fast."

LSU Guera: 'Most people, who do not live on the southern border, don't get it. Most employers do not even know what fraudulent documents look like, let alone where to begin in identifying them It all comes down to money. Do you really want to do the jobs the "illegals' are doing???"

Immigration issues are always hot topics. A recent Rasmussen Report poll found that 71 percent of respondents believe that illegal immigrants should not qualify for in-state tuition rates at colleges and universities. Additionally, 77 percent opposed making drivers' licenses available to illegal immigrants.

Even regionally, the debate has taken on many forms. U.S. Attorney Jim Letten has told reporters that he has personally seen an increase in the amount of felony cases involving illegal immigrants, a trend many link to the number of jobs available through the rebuilding process. In Acadiana, Lafayette Parish President Joel Durel recently revoked a permit that had been issued to the Mexican Consulate in Houston to use a parish building to issue identification cards.

Dr. Kirby Goidel, director of LSU's Public Policy Research Lab, isn't surprised by the warm embrace Louisiana's electorate is giving the anti-immigration mood of our state's congressional delegation. Goidel plans to poll the issue in his 2008 survey, cementing its status as a hot-button topic that will only get hotter before next fall's elections. Ironically, Goidel adds, much of the fervor comes from areas (like Houma) that aren't suffering from serious immigration woes. 'Politically, the issue just plays well here," Goidel says. 'I don't think the trend is being driven by anything else but conservative politics, though. It gets a lot of attention from people and it's an issue that generally cuts across party lines."

While most of the delegation has hooked up with some sort of anti-immigration bill, the more notable efforts are linked to business and industry. For instance, Melancon's SAVE Act (Secure America through Verification and Enforcement) seeks to drastically reduce illegal immigration through stricter employer verification. 'The logic is simple: if illegal workers can't get a job in the U.S., they will stop trying to come here illegally," Melancon says.

The knee-jerk reaction from the business community might be to oppose this idea, but Melancon argues that a 'free and simple program" is already available from the Department of Homeland Security. It allows employers to verify that the people they hire are legally allowed to work in the U.S. If his bill passes, the existing program would be phased-in over four years, beginning with the federal government, federal contractors and businesses with more than 250 employees. Smaller businesses, meanwhile, would begin using the system gradually.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu, a fellow Democrat from New Orleans, has introduced the same bill in the Upper Chamber. She says it's a bipartisan effort that will produce results. 'Recent debates on immigration have time and again fallen victim to partisan division," Landrieu says. 'Falling through that divide has been the paramount need to enforce the laws already on the books, and to back them up with the action and resources to succeed."

Melancon's SAVE Act also would add 8,000 new patrol agents to the nation's borders and further enforce existing laws that both Landrieu and Melancon contend lack any real bite.

Junior Sen. David Vitter, a Metairie Republican who is one of Louisiana's more vocal critics of illegal immigration, weighs in on this issue as well. He has filed legislation that would require banks and other financial institutions to verify the citizenship of anyone trying to obtain a bank or credit card. The bill is being pushed partly in response to the loophole that allowed the Sept. 11 hijackers to obtain credit cards from U.S. banks to finance their terrorist activities.

It all comes down to how and why 'matricula ID cards" should be accepted. These laminated cards are nothing more than official identifications issued by the Mexican government. Their only value is that U.S. police departments, banks, local governments and state motor vehicle accept them. 'In doing so, they receive no guarantee that the individual presenting such a document is not an illegal immigrant or worse " on a terrorist watch list," Vitter says. 'Preventing the use of questionable documents as an acceptable form of identification will add another layer of security to the banking process."

Vitter's bill would require the identity of all individuals who are not American citizens to be verified via a social security number, a passport number with the country of issuance or an alien identification card number or some combination of the three. To prevent individuals from using matricula ID cards for the purposes of opening banking or credit card accounts, the bill specifically designates unexpired passports as the only acceptable form of identification issued by a foreign government.

Ginger Sawyer, political action director for the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry, says LABI's membership has always been concerned about penalties that might be imposed on companies unknowingly employing an illegal alien " or the fines and costs associated with overbearing mandates. Sawyer says she has seen no uproar from her membership about particular legislation.

With the fall elections not far off, the tough-on-immigration trend probably means lawmakers are trying to energize their bases. 'Its only drivers are political," Sawyer says. 'That's just the only explanation I'm left with." Jeremy Alford can be reached at jeremy@jeremyalford.com.

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