Politics & Government

House Democrats chew on Senate immigration bill

FRANKFORT — House Democrats on Wednesday began the process of talking Senate Republicans' illegal immigration bill to a standstill, with much discussion about its potential cost but no vote scheduled.

"We can't just be emotional and have vile hatred at work. We have to look at the fiscal implications, that's what we're required to do," said Rep. Steve Riggs, D-Louisville, chairman of the House Committee on Local Government, which held its first discussion-only hearing on the bill.

Another discussion-only hearing is planned next week, featuring the concerns of law enforcement, but it's "unknown" whether the committee ever will vote on the bill, Riggs said.

Senate Bill 6 would make it a state crime — a misdemeanor or felony, depending on the circumstances — for illegal immigrants to enter Kentucky, or for anyone to harbor or transport them or encourage their residency in the state.

It would authorize police to approach people in public and ask about their immigration status.

The resulting arrests would burden local jails already running out of funds, jail and county officials told the House committee. Kentucky has about 19,200 jail beds, 98 percent of which were occupied as of last week, they said.

"I definitely think that Senate Bill 6 has an unfunded mandate to it," said Richard Tanner, executive director of the Kentucky Magistrates and Commissioners Association. "We don't know how much the costs would be. We just know we're at the breaking point now."

A fiscal impact statement prepared by the legislature's non-partisan staff last month estimated the bill could cost state and local governments $90 million and save $50 million, for a net cost of $40 million a year. Jail and prison costs combined were estimated at $49 million.

The Senate approved SB 6 before the fiscal impact statement was prepared.

The lead sponsor, Sen. John Schickel, argued with Riggs and others on the House committee Wednesday in defense of his bill. Illegal immigrants in Kentucky are filling classrooms and hospital beds, using social services and taking jobs, all at a growing cost to the public, Schickel said.

"I would readily admit that there is a cost to this bill. But there is also a cost to doing nothing," said Schickel, R-Union.

He brought several people to speak in favor of his bill, including Cathy Flaig of the Northern Kentucky Tea Party and Douglas Roy of Kentuckians for Immigration Reform and Enforcement, which pledges on its Web site to "end the invasion of illegal aliens into the United States."

Schickel said he hoped his guests could address lawmakers. Riggs declined and said committee hearings are for legislative business and they are not a town hall or a blog.

Committee members used the hearing to promote the House Democratic immigration bill, House Bill 3, which would require businesses that get government contracts to use E-Verify, a federally run Internet-based system, to check employees' immigration status. That measure has been approved by the House the past two years but died in the Senate.

"It's actually much less costly if the illegal immigrant never comes here because there is no job here for him," Riggs said.

In response, Schickel said HB 3 would put the burden on "struggling businesses" to verify employees' immigration status rather than on the immigrants themselves.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, challenged his colleagues' assumption of rising jail costs by saying U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement reimburses jails for holding illegal immigrants for transfer to federal custody and deportation.

"Well, yeah, I've attempted (to collect) that, and I've never received anything," said one of the committee witnesses, Shelby County Jailer Bobby Waits, president of the Kentucky Jailers Association. Schickel, a former jailer himself, agreed with Waits that federal immigration officials are famously slow to make payments or pick up their inmates.

The committee also heard from Bob Wilcher, executive director of the Kentucky Head Start Association. Wilcher told lawmakers that Head Start, a federally funded program for 17,500 needy children in Kentucky, is required to serve families living in poverty regardless of their immigration status.

Wilcher said SB6 could leave Head Start teachers or bus drivers open to prosecution for encouraging residency or transporting illegal immigrants. Doing this for 10 or more illegal immigrant children would be a felony under the bill, Wilcher said.

"We're not allowed to ask about their immigration status," Wilcher said. "Are there 10 children who are, quote, unauthorized aliens enrolled out of the 17,500? I suspect so. But we're not allowed to ask and we don't ask."

Schickel called Head Start's concerns alarmist. His bill included language requiring it to be implemented consistent with federal civil-rights protections; given their federal mandate, Head Start workers should be covered by this, he said.

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