PROVIDENCE - As Alabama and Arizona embrace harsh new immigration laws, the state of Rhode Island is going the other way.
Governor Lincoln D. Chafee, who took office in January, has dismantled Rhode Island’s vigorous campaign against illegal immigration in recent months, ditching the E-verify system for checking workers’ status, revoking the State Police’s authority to enforce federal immigration laws, and leading a campaign that last week granted in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants. He is even considering driver’s licenses for immigrants living here illegally.
The stunning turnaround reflects the fickle nature of immigration politics in a state that still remains deeply divided over the issue, with critics vowing to fight Chafee’s actions. But it is also a lesson in the growing power of the Latino vote, and how an unlikely alliance between immigrants and Chafee, a risk-taking blueblood politician, tipped the scales and propelled Rhode Island in a new direction.
“The big thing was that it wasn’t working,’’ Chafee said in an interview yesterday, describing his predecessor’s efforts to curb illegal immigration. “The idea was that it would help us with our economy. It didn’t accomplish that.’’
One of his first acts in office was to rescind a 2008 order by the previous governor, Governor Donald Carcieri, that sought to reduce the estimated 20,000 to 40,000 illegal immigrants in Rhode Island and lessen what he called a burden on state resources. The order required state agencies and contractors to use E-verify, a federal service that verifies a person’s eligibility to work, and deputized several State Police troopers to help enforce immigration law, among other provisions.
Chafee said that instead of boosting the economy, the policies alienated the state’s Latino population, which has grown more than 40 percent in the past decade and includes significant numbers of immigrants. He said the state was unfairly blaming immigrants for the bleak economy.
The son of a governor and the descendant of one of Rhode Island’s founding families, Chafee would appear to have little in common with illegal immigrants flowing in mostly from Latin America, except for a $50 fine he got in 1977 for illegally working as a blacksmith in Canada.
But immigrants said Chafee listened to their concerns during his campaign last year, when the former Republican US senator, who ran as an independent, said he would rescind Carcieri’s order and fight for a path to citizenship for those here illegally.
He won a three-way race for governor with just 36 percent of the vote, and though less than a tenth of Rhode Island voters are Latinos, he said they likely pushed him over the top. Latinos also had a decisive role in other close races, and in the election of Providence’s first Latino mayor, Harvard-educated Angel Taveras.
Chafee’s critics say the debate is far from over. This week, about 500 protesters rallied at the State House in Providence to protest the unanimous Sept. 26 decision by the Board of Governors for Higher Education to grant in-state tuition to illegal immigrants, and vowed to overturn it before the rule takes effect in September 2012.
“Rhode Island didn’t change, just the administration changed,’’ said Terry Gorman, executive director of Rhode Islanders for Immigration Law Enforcement, who attended the rally. He added, “We’re going to challenge this.’’
The Latino Policy Institute at Roger Williams University says the new rule will bring in about $162,000 annually while only affecting about 100 illegal immigrants a year. Now, undocumented students pay nonresident tuition that is more than double the cost. Resident tuition at the University of Rhode Island is $10,556 a year, compared with $27,262 a year for nonresidents.
Antonio Albizures-Lopez, a 20-year-old here without papers since his parents brought him as a baby from Guatemala, said he campaigned for Chafee because the candidate had told him he would consider helping students such as him, but he had been skeptical that things would change.
“I didn’t expect it, to tell you the truth,’’ said Albizures-Lopez. “When I was working on his campaign, I always thought maybe he’s going to be another politician who throws out promises and never completes them. But he’s actually kept his word.’’
Rhode Island’s flip-flop reflects a slew of similar contradictions at the national level, where states such as Maryland and Connecticut are allowing students here illegally to pay in-state tuition while states such as Alabama are barring them from state colleges altogether. Researchers say many states are tackling illegal immigration because Congress, which has power over federal immigration law, has consistently failed to do so.
This year federal officials fully deployed the controversial Secure Communities program in Rhode Island, allowing them to screen the fingerprints of everyone arrested and hold those here illegally for possible deportation.
Rhode Island is also continuing to refer convicted criminals to immigration officials for possible deportation once their sentences are up, though that was part of the overturned executive order.
But unauthorized immigrants who came here to work say they welcomed the respite from years of hostility from the governor’s office. They say they came here to work, often from nations deeply affected by war, poverty, and gang violence.
“You don’t have to hide,’’ said Leo, 30, who declined to give his last name because he is here illegally to work and send money to his wife and two children. As he spoke about them, tears filled his eyes because he has not seen them in three years.
Juan and Antonia Garcia, owners of the popular La Poblanita bakery and market in Providence, said their business suffered under the past administration, with immigrants afraid to travel to their shop. for homemade mole and fresh corn tortillas. The couple, too, came here illegally from Mexico many years ago, but now are US citizens and business owners who pay taxes and proudly sent all three children to college.
Antonia Garcia was thrilled that Chafee approved in-state tuition, but her husband shrugged, saying that the bigger problem remains unsolved. Even if undocumented students graduate from college, he said, they cannot live here legally.
“What happens when they graduate ? Are they going to let them work?’’ said Juan Garcia, peering over his eyeglasses as he stood behind the counter. “I know people are celebrating and everything, but it doesn’t give us a thing.’’Maria Sacchetti can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @mariasacchetti.
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Published Saturday, October 8, 2011 by The Boston Globe.