Nevada Legislature prepares to tackle variety of immigration measures

CARSON CITY – Immigration is destined to become a hot topic in the 2013 legislative session as proposals ranging from granting driver’s licenses to Dream Act residents to prohibiting illegal residents from collecting state benefits could come up for debate.

The wide range of measures also includes voter ID proposals and a bill modeled on a controversial Arizona law that would direct Nevada law enforcement to ask those they arrest without proper ID about their residency status.

And unlike immigration proposals considered in past years, a few bills might actually have a chance of clearing the Legislature and being signed into law. Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval, Nevada’s first Hispanic governor, has supported one goal important to the state’s un­documented immigrants – the Department of Motor Vehicles’ decision to allow young immigrants with two-year federal work permits to obtain state-issued driver’s licenses.

The Nevada debate will likely intensify when President Barack Obama visits Las Vegas on Tuesday to make a case for overhauling the nation’s immigration system at the federal level. He has picked Southern Nevada as the right place to launch his revitalized immigration reform campaign.

VARIETY OF IMMIGRATION MEASURES

Bills now being drafted include several meant to restrict the ability of immigrants to work or collect benefits. Others would provide some level of accommodation to those living in Nevada without proper legal status.

Several of the more restrictive-oriented measures have been proposed before by Republican lawmakers but have been met with resistance in the Democrat-controlled Assembly and state Senate. Many have never had hearings and there are no guarantees they will be heard this session either.

Assembly Majority Leader William Horne, D-Las Vegas, said there isn’t enough time to hear all bills introduced each session, including some bills sought by Democrats.

"We do hear Republican bills and we do pass Republican bills," he said.

But one policy that has some bi­partisan support comes from Gov. Brian Sandoval, who might be the new face of the GOP when it comes to immigration issues. He supports giving Dream Act immigrants state-issued driver’s licenses or IDs so they can seek employment.

The policy is in response to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Deferred Action program. As many as 200,000 young immigrants could benefit from the policy in Nevada.

The state Senate Republican leadership has endorsed the policy announced in November by the Department of Motor Vehicles.

State Senate Majority Leader Mo Denis, D-Las Vegas, is proposing a separate measure to issue driver’s "privilege cards" to illegal residents.

Denis said it’s a safety issue and the cards couldn’t be used as official IDs like a regular driver’s license. They would also help ensure that illegal residents obtain auto insurance.

It’s patterned after a Utah program. Sandoval has not yet taken a position on the proposal.

VOTER ID LAW PROPOSED

There is also a proposal by Secretary of State Ross Miller to include photos of registered voters in electronic poll books that would be used at voting places to help assure the public that there is no fraudulent voting.

The proposal has proven controversial with some voting rights advocates and the cost could also make it tough to pass in a session where tax revenue is scarce.

Miller said his initial estimate of the cost of $5 million to $10 million will be substantially less when new numbers are finalized this week. The cost would be less than a voter ID plan, which would involve the issuance of identification cards and require a program to educate the voting public on the new rules, he said.

"My proposal provides the identical safeguards that voter ID proposals would do but mine would not dis­enfranchise any voters," Miller said. "It’s a common-sense proposal."

Assemblyman Lynn Stewart, R-Henderson, said he wants an ID law requiring voters to provide proof of who they are when they cast ballots.

"My intent is to make sure everything is on the up and up," he said. "You need to show an ID to cash a check and for numerous other things. I don’t see it as discrimination against any minority group."

Stewart said he likes Miller’s proposal but said the cost involved makes it difficult to implement.

Stewart introduced the bill in 2011 to make English the official language of Nevada as more of a symbolic than practical measure but it did not get a hearing.

OTHER IMMIGRATION PROPOSALS

State Sen. Don Gustavson, R-Sparks, said his proposals are not focused on punishing illegal residents. His English-only requirement for driver’s licenses is a safety issue because drivers need to have knowledge of the language to read signs and obey traffic laws, he said.

His proposal to deny state benefits to illegal residents also contains a provision making it illegal for an employer who has knowingly hired an illegal resident to use that status to coerce the person into committing a crime.

"It has been a problem in the past," Gustavson said. "It protects illegals from being blackmailed into performing illegal acts."

Assemblyman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, said his proposals to use E-Verify and allow law enforcement to ask about residency status have been vetted by legislative legal staff to ensure they are constitutional. E-Verify is a federal program that provides information about a worker’s legal status.

Illegal immigration into the United States and Nevada might have slowed during the Great Recession as jobs dried up, but the Pew Hispanic Center reported in 2011 that 12.2 percent of the Nevada workforce was made up of illegal residents, he said.

"At the time when this came up a couple of years ago we had 13 percent unemployment," Hansen said. "It would be the biggest jobs bill in Nevada history if, in a theoretical world, you were able to actually get the people who don’t belong in the job market out of the job market."

Doing so would drive wages up for legal workers, he said.

The current situation is unfair to those people who immigrate to the United States legally, but there are also those in Nevada and elsewhere who like the supply of cheap labor, Hansen said.

"The Republican Party is in retreat on all these kind of issues," he said. "To me it’s not a racial issue; it’s a basic fairness issue."

Contact Capital Bureau reporter Sean Whaley at swhaley@reviewjournal.com or 775-687-3900.

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