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No CLEAR consensus on immigration-enforcement bill

By Lou Dobbs

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(CNN) -- The fight for border security and immigration-law reform will continue when the new Congress convenes in January. Following the exclusion of key immigration provisions in the intelligence reform bill, Congress has promised to take an immediate look at a plan to institute national driver's license standards. That may renew interest in another stalled proposal: a plan to track down more of the estimated 15 million illegal aliens living in the United States.

Congressman Charles Norwood, R-Georgia, last year introduced a proposal to enlist state law enforcement to find and remove the estimated 450,000 illegal alien absconders, foreign nationals who have been ordered deported. Norwood views his Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal (CLEAR) Act as a way to build federal-state cooperation on an issue essential to national security. The bill's proponents envision a network of information sharing that would streamline immigration-law enforcement much as the new reform bill is expected to streamline intelligence.

The main goal of the bill is to combine federal and state forces to get criminal illegal aliens off the streets, said Duke Hipp, Norwood's press secretary. There are an estimated 80,000 criminal illegal aliens in the country, which are people who have committed crimes in the United States and are due for deportation but remain at large. An estimated 4,000 of those criminal illegal aliens are from countries that support terrorism.

The bill's opponents, however, say local law enforcement shouldn't be expected to do the federal government's job. Training and mobilizing more federal immigration authorities would be a better response to the problem, said Veronique Pluviose-Fenton, principal legislative council at the National League of Cities. The NLC, which represents 18,000 municipal governments throughout the country, opposes the CLEAR Act.

"Local government has a responsibility to cooperate with the federal government whenever we're apprehending criminals, but we don't believe there is inherent authority for us to serve as immigration agents," Pluviose-Fenton said. "We have consistently said that it is the federal government's job to pay to have additional officers at the borders."

Norwood himself has said there aren't enough Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents to do the job, which is why he wants local and state forces to join the fight. He claimed the ICE has only 2,000 agents charged with enforcing immigration laws. Last April, Norwood said his bill would "provide the help these outmanned ICE agents so desperately need."

But Russ Knocke, a spokesman for the ICE, said the bureau doesn't disclose the size of its "fugitive absconder" teams. Yet, he added, "we have record after record being broken in terms of enforcement figures. We've got the right tools to enforce the law and to carry out the national-security mandate."

States currently receive federal money to detain criminal and illegal aliens before federal agents arrive to retrieve them. But under the CLEAR Act, the U.S. government will withhold some of these funds from states that do not cooperate with the program. Hipp said this provision was more an incentive than a penalty.

"It's not a mandate, but there's definitely a carrot and stick there," Hipp said. "The logic is simple: if they don't want to enforce immigration laws they don't have to, but there's no reason the federal government should pay them to do a job they're not going to do."

"I don't understand where there's a carrot for local government," she said. "Rather, we're being stretched thin to once again carry out a federal function under the threat of an un-funded mandate."

Hipp said that most rank-and-file officer groups have endorsed the bill, citing the support of the National Sheriffs' Association and the Law Enforcement Alliance of America. But police departments in several major cities, including Phoenix, Los Angeles, Houston, Chicago and Seattle, have come out against the bill. Last week, the International Association of Chiefs of Police also announced its opposition.

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