By Lawrence Budd
Middletown Journal Staff Writer
SPRINGBORO — Harriet Tucker seems an unlikely advocate for immigration reform.
Yet the 75-year-old antiques dealer is responsible for bringing this national issue to the floor of Springboro City Council chambers.
"She started the whole ball rolling," said Bill Barnhill, a founding member of Citizens for Legal Communities, the Warren County-based group bent on convincing local communities to crack down on employers or landlords of illegal immigrants.
Tucker, who says she cherishes her Norwegian roots, contacted her neighbor, Springboro Mayor John Agenbroad, on behalf of the group, scheduled to appear before the council on Feb. 15.
"It's a tricky issue," Tucker conceded, after recounting media accounts of bankrupt hospitals and overcrowded schools along the Mexican border as a result of the influx of immigrants.
Still, Tucker congratulated the group for joining a movement pushing for changes in more than 60 local communities across the country.
A coalition of groups sued Hazelton, Pa., over passage of its Illegal Immigration Relief Act, under which landlords face $1,000 fines for each illegal immigrant in their rentals. A federal judge has granted a temporary injunction, barring it from going to effect, but the case is pending.
In Farmer's Branch, Texas, residents will consider a local initiative in May validating a similar law already in effect there, despite legal challenges. A legal challenge has also been mounted against a California community enacting immigration laws.
"I don't really care," Judi Lehman said, when presented with questions raised about the laws advocated by the Citizens for Legal Communities.
Lehman, Barnhill and about 10 others comprise the group's membership, but County Sheriff Tom Ariss and County Prosecutor Rachel Hutzel have expressed support and attended meetings designed to raise public awareness.
Frustrated in appeals to local representatives in Congress and the Ohio legislature, the group has refocused on local governments. It unveils this new strategy tonight for the City Council in Mason, where the last two murder cases have involved illegal immigrants.
In 2001, Jesus Plasencia, 19, of Mexico, was sentenced to 10 years in prison for stabbing a Mexican co-worker to death in an August 2000 argument at their apartment in Mason.
Citizens for Legal Communities was formed after the stabbing death of Kevin C. Barnhill, a well-known former athlete at Little Miami High School.
Barnhill, 27, of Mason, was last seen alive on Aug. 26, being chased behind the Mason Pub, moments before he was alledgedly stabbed to death.
Police say Barnhill had fought earlier that night with Jose N. Mota, 40, of Mexico, charged in connection with Barnhill's death, along with his brother, Humberto Mota, 30, and Enrique Torres, 36, also both Mexican citizens.
Neither Torres, still on the loose, or the Motas, who are in custody, have Social Security numbers or any documents allowing them to legally live or work in the U.S., authorities said. However, they all were living in a rental on Tylersville Road in Mason, and Jose Mota was employed by a Fairfield roofing company, court records show.
Barnhill's grieving parents started a scholarship fund and convinced the Cincinnati Reds to join them in upgrading local sports fields in their son's name.
They joined the citizen's group after a call from Lehman, a clerk in the County Sheriff's office whose frustration with illegal immigrants in the legal system was piqued by the Barnhill case.
Some landlords and business owners worry the proposed laws will create problems for them and conflict with federal laws limiting their inquiries of prospective employers and tenants.
They run the risk of violating other federal laws that prohibit discrimination, said Charles Tassell, director of government affairs for the Greater Cincinnati Northern Kentucky & Southern Ohio Apartment Association.
"That's the kind of place between a rock and a hard place we're in," Tassel said.
State Rep. Bill Seitz, R-Cincinnati, said he or another lawmaker would be reintroducing a bill like one he proposed in the last session aimed at improving Ohio's immigration laws. But Seitz said the legislation was unlikely to include provisions sought by the citizens group due to concerns about enforcement and preemption by federal immigration law.
Barnhill supports other provisions of immigration bills proposed by Seitz and other Ohio lawmakers, while pursuing the group's agenda at the local level.
"We need to talk with people we are closer to," he said, counting about eight communities around the U.S. with similar laws.
At the same time, the group hopes that, with heightened public awareness, a petition drive will lead to a statewide vote.
"Ultimately what we want to do is get an initiative on the ballot," Barnhill said.