PROVIDENCE, R.I. (AP) – Rhode Island’s closest international border is the Canadian one, about 200 miles to the north. About 11 percent of the 1 million people who live here were born in another country, and estimates say that a third or fewer of those people are in the country illegally.

But Gov. Don Carcieri says illegal immigration has become such a problem – and cost the state so much money at a time that it is grappling with a $568 million budget deficit – that last month he signed an executive order directing state police to crack down on illegal immigrants.

Since then, church leaders and some of Carcieri’s own advisers have urged him to rescind it or said it was creating a climate of fear among all minorities. Angry protesters stormed the office of Carcieri’s top policy aide. Local police departments are divided, with some saying they’ll enforce the order and the chief in Providence saying it’s destructive to the bonds of trust officers have built with communities.

“It’s very difficult to think about what drove the governor to do this. I’m amazed,” said Jaime Aguayo, a member of the governor’s own Advisory Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which the governor did not consult before signing the order. Some members have threatened to quit in protest.

Carcieri’s office has not studied whether the measure would save or cost the state money, although the governor said he believes the cost will be minimal. In Prince William County, Va., where police began enforcing immigration laws last month, the price tag has risen to an estimated $6.9 million in the coming budget year. That includes a higher-than-expected amount to pay for overcrowding at the county jail due to the crackdown.

Carcieri’s order directs state police to enter an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to allow them to enforce immigration law, which is similar to agreements made by various state and local law enforcement agencies in 17 other states. It also requires the executive branch and companies that do business with the state to use a federal computer system to verify the immigration status of new hires.

The governor also supports bills pending in the legislature that would make English the official state language and make it a felony crime to rent a home to an illegal immigrant.

After meeting with concerned clergy Friday, Carcieri refused to rescind his order. But he agreed to create an advisory committee that will monitor how it is enforced.

The state estimates about 5 percent of the prison population could be illegal immigrants, and a program that provides health care for pregnant women and children who are illegal immigrants cost the state about $8 million this year, about 1 percent of the state’s Medicaid budget (although the governor’s order does nothing to end that benefit).

The state’s budget deficit for next fiscal year is about 10 percent of expected state spending, and the governor and lawmakers have been making deep cuts in programs like education, social services and aid to local communities to close the gap.

So it’s not surprising that illegal immigrants are now in the governor’s sights, said Darrell West, a political scientist and pollster at Brown University.

“Illegal immigrants are a convenient target because they don’t vote, they tend to be poor and they don’t have a lot of political power,” West said.

Democratic Rep. Timothy Williamson, a deputy majority leader, calls the immigration debate a diversion tactic by leaders who don’t want to deal with the budget crisis – although he declined to speculate specifically on the governor’s motives. Carcieri has denied the timing of his order was politically motivated. He faults Congress for failing to reform national immigration policy and said the state government must enforce the law.

Williamson said he also worries Hispanics are being singled out.

“I have not heard anyone commenting on the number of illegal Swedes in the state of Rhode Island,” he said. “You never hear any discussion about Asians, Canadians.”

But Democratic Rep. Jon Brien backs Carcieri’s order and has submitted legislation to take it a step further by requiring every private employer in the state to use the same federal database to check the immigration status of their new hires.

“The workforce in the state of Rhode Island should be a legal one,” Brien said. “It puts everyone in the state on a level playing field.”

Advocates for immigrants are livid.

Miguel Sanchez-Hartwein, executive director of the Center for Hispanic Policy and Advocacy, a nonprofit advocacy group, said he first thought Carcieri signed the order because he was ill-informed. He quickly changed his mind when Carcieri appeared on TV with CNN’s Lou Dobbs, who has made a crusade of illegal immigration.

“When you go to a show like that, you’re telling me this is pure politics,” Sanchez-Hartwein said

The state’s agreement to enforce immigration law is still being worked out, but State Police Maj. Steven O’Donnell said once in place, it will allow officers to inquire more deeply about the immigration status of anyone they contact if there’s a reason to think they are here illegally. That could be people who are arrested, motorists stopped by police or witnesses who report crimes.

Critics warn of racial profiling, and fear the measure will make illegal immigrants scared to contact police if they are a victim of crime or witness one happening. Providence Police Chief Dean Esserman has rejected Carcieri’s call for local police to participate, although the Rhode Island Police Chiefs Association supports it.

“I don’t want to do something that will risk the trust that we have built in this community,” Esserman said earlier this month.

Juan Garcia, who works with immigrants at St. Teresa of Avila Church in Providence, held a meeting about Carcieri’s order shortly after it was signed. Anxious people wanted to know if they could still renew their driver’s licenses or pay state payroll taxes without being identified as illegal immigrants, he said.

Garcia said pressuring illegal immigrants could hurt the state because they pay state taxes, buy goods and run small businesses. One chicken restaurant catering to South Americans was considering opening in Providence before Carcieri’s order. Now Garcia wonders if the owner will follow through.

“Who will buy his chicken?” Garcia said.

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.