Political News

States taking more of a lead on immigration, citing federal inaction

Posted August 7

States are passing substantially more immigration-related bills and resolutions than last year, according to a new report, which state lawmakers say is a sign of how the lack of federal immigration reform is forcing states to act.

States passed 90% more legislation related to immigration in the first half of 2017 than 2016, says the new report from the National Conference of State legislatures, a bipartisan national organization for state lawmakers.

Only three states did not enact some type of immigration-related legislation in the first half of this year, the group said: Alaska, Massachusetts and North Carolina. Overall, the remaining states passed 133 bills on the issue in the first half of 2017 compared to 70 in 2016. The number of related resolutions increased to 195 from 159 the year before.

Part of that, the authors of the report say, is a response to the overall increase of immigration as a talking point in national politics, in part due to President Donald Trump's campaign. But a lot of it is the continued inability of Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration system.

"Since we don't have and we haven't had an immigration policy that works -- we haven't reformed the policy at a federal level -- a lot of this falls back to the states," said Florida state Sen. Rene Garcia, a Republican who co-chairs the NCSL's task force on immigration. "And so states are having to take the lead on what we do or don't do."

"States can only do so much, and most of the things that we do are really work-arounds," echoed Nevada Sen. Mo Denis, a Democrat and Garcia's co-chairman on the task force. "So the real fix has to come from the federal government, because they really have that under their charge."

The legislation that was enacted ran the gamut of topics and ideologies. Common themes were sanctuary policies, law enforcement, education and refugees -- although states often took different approaches to those issues.

For example, Vermont passed a law promoting a sanctuary policy statewide, mandating that state and local government officials cannot share a Vermont resident's religion, nation of origin or immigration status with the federal government. Meanwhile, Texas passed a contentious bill, SB 4, which prohibits sanctuary policies statewide. Altogether, 16 states and DC enacted 28 laws on law enforcement, the NCSL said.

In another example, states took opposing views on the issue of tuition for undocumented immigrants. Twelve states and DC passed 17 laws on the topic of education, including requirements on tuition and the teaching of certain civic lessons in the curriculum. While DC passed a bill to allow any eligible student to pay in-state tuition and qualify for financial aid regardless of immigration status, Georgia prohibited its colleges and universities from adopting any sanctuary policies, with potential penalties. The pattern continued on the full range of topics.

NCSL program director Ann Morse, who co-authored the report, said that in her years tracking the issue, states have responded to the needs of their residents as well as to trends at the federal level. For example, she said, when the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy was enacted by the Obama administration in 2012, states scrambled to figure out how to accommodate the program for in-state recipients. Now, she says, the pendulum is swinging towards more enforcement-focused policies.

"States do this because the public expects a response," Morse said. "They don't want to hear, 'It's because the federal government isn't doing anything,' but that's where the solution needs to be. Ideally, our members would like the federal government to look at their creativity and take some lessons from what we're learning."

Garcia said that as states take diverging positions on the issues, the need for a guidepost from the federal government remains. He argues that bills like Texas' SB 4, which would penalize local officials and law enforcement for not cooperating with federal immigration authorities or for preventing police officers from asking those they arrest about their immigration status, go too far into the realm of racial profiling, even if the ostensible goal was to fight sanctuary cities. Garcia said he hopes that national lawmakers could come up with a bipartisan solution, but if not, he said some federal law is better than none, and states can challenge what they think goes too far in the courts.

"So we don't have to have these battles in our states, so our states can focus on our children and education and health care, we shouldn't be involved in these immigration battles," Garcia said. "It's something Washington should take up. ... Whether we agree with it or not, at least it gives direction to the states."

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