ATLANTIC CITY - Towns are the front lines of the national immigration debate, according to state and municipal officials who gathered in the resort Tuesday for the annual New Jersey League of Municipalities Conference.

"Those of us here in local government are the ones that are at ground zero," said Kerry Higgins, attorney for Freehold, Monmouth County, during a meeting on immigration issues and the recommendations of a recent report. "We're there facing and trying to bring all members of our communities into our community so that we can have one coherent community."

The Governor's Blue Ribbon Advisory Panel on Immigrant Policy, assembled by Gov. Jon S. Corzine in 2007, released a report in March with more than three dozen policy proposals suggesting how to better integrate New Jersey's tens of thousands of undocumented aliens.

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The report drew attention for advocating allowing illegal aliens to drive legally and qualifying their children for in-state tuition rates.

Panel member Ronald Chen, the state's Public Advocate and chairman of

the governor's immigration panel, said Corzine promised him before the election he would create an Office of New Americans by executive order.

That office, in the Public Advocate's office, would help coordinate health and other services, Chen said, implementing the policy suggestions in the report.

Chen said the most successful towns developed relationships between community leaders and municipal employees who spend time in the communities, including police, fire and building department employees.

Others set up a program to let immigrants know what public services existed.

The report, more controversially, suggested the children of illegal immigrants qualify for in-state tuition rates. Chen said he heard stories of academically gifted children, who couldn't afford college, recruited by gangs. He said, "That was their available opportunity."

Higgins said the bottom line for towns is that they do not decide immigration policy - that's for federal government. Towns handle immigrants. "There are very few resources and little input from the state," she said. "Federal policies fail to take into consideration local concerns."

She said her town tries to communicate with immigrants, holding forums on issues including bicycling, housing, public safety and child safety seats.

George Beatty, a committeeman from Hope Township, Warren County, said unchecked immigration has undercut wages in the construction business. Beatty, who said he also owns a construction business, said he would support a program in which immigrants could have some standing and pay taxes. Firms that hire undocumented immigrants would then face stiff penalties.

Immigration is a hot-button issue in many parts of the country, but apparently not here.

Barely two-dozen people attended the meeting, in a cavernous room that seats more than 500.

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