POIZNER: How should we handle illegal immigration?

The United States, and California in particular, has been built by immigrants who legally crossed our borders in search of a brighter future. For generations, these legal immigrants have made immeasurable contributions to creating a unique and vibrant California. As Americans and Californians, we are right to welcome people from all over the globe when they obey our laws and are willing to play by the rules.

Illegal immigration is another matter. With the state budget in tatters, millions of residents out of work and a state prison system strained by massive overcrowding, California simply cannot continue to ignore the strain that illegal immigration puts on our budget and economy. Illegal immigrants cost taxpayers in our state billions of dollars each year. As economist Philip J. Romero concluded in a 2007 study, "illegal immigrants impose a 'tax' on legal California residents in the tens of billions of dollars."

Some have said illegal immigration is an issue for the federal government, not states, and that there's little a governor can do to fix the problem. Those people are wrong.

In government at any level, federal or state, a chief executive's duty is to preserve the rule of law. This means confronting those who flout it, including illegal immigrants and those who shield them.

I believe there are many ways our state can stem illegal immigration, including social services reform and beefed-up border security. The state needs to confront the problem in a way that is fair and decent but unapologetically aggressive.

Above all, California has too many policies that reward illegal immigrants and act as magnets, drawing them to and keeping them in our cities and communities. We have to change those policies.

Ten other states, including Arizona, have passed laws to cut taxpayer-funded benefits for illegal immigrants. We need such legislation. In this time of fiscal crisis, we can't afford to subsidize the presence of illegal immigrants.

One taxpayer-funded benefit for illegal immigrants that should be stopped is in-state tuition at our public colleges and universities. California is one of just 10 states that allow illegal immigrants access to reduced college tuition at taxpayer expense.

California also must do its part to help secure the border by deploying the state's National Guard to assist federal authorities. We should work with other border states to create a multistate partnership for sharing information, resources and manpower.

Confronting illegal immigration means confronting those who offer assistance to those who are flouting the law. We need to end "sanctuary city" policies, in which communities (San Francisco, for example) openly offer haven to illegal immigrants. Counties, cities and towns that put in place sanctuary policies should lose state funds.

Why? We have seen the tragic consequences that can stem from offering sanctuary to protect criminals who are in our country illegally. Consider, for example, the case of Edwin Ramos. An illegal immigrant from El Salvador, Ramos was twice convicted of felonies as a juvenile but was shielded from deportation by San Francisco's sanctuary policy. Subsequently, he was charged with murdering three people and is awaiting trial. Ramos should have been sent back to his country of origin when he first was arrested. And the same should be true of any illegal immigrant arrested in a crime.

Businesses that knowingly employ illegal immigrants undermine the rule of law. Jobs are a major reason people immigrate to California. We need to be tough on employers who hire, and at times prey on, an illegal work force. We must require employers to verify the status of their workers, and we should revoke the state-issued licenses of businesses that make a practice of knowingly employing people unauthorized to work in this country.

Legal immigration is a great thing for California, but we no longer can afford illegal immigration. If we eliminate the public benefit magnets, step up border enforcement, and crack down on the cities and businesses that shield illegal immigrants who already are here, we can go a long way toward stemming the tide of illegal immigration.

Immigration law is defined by the federal government. But the consequences and costs of illegal immigration fall on the states. That is why California must do everything possible to address this pressing problem. And in any debate on the future of immigration policy, state officials should voice the interests of their constituents.

To those debating a new immigration bill in Washington, I have two words: no amnesty.

Poizner is California's insurance commissioner and a Republican candidate for governor.