Federal inaction on immigration spurs unprecedented state action

With comprehensive reform unlikely until 2009 at the earliest, state governments are proposing and enacting their own solutions to address the nation’s ineffective and outdated immigration controls. Since there is little hope for federal immigration reform any time soon, state legislatures have taken the lead on the issue — proposing and enacting three times more immigration-related legislation in 2007 than in 2006.

“In the continued absence of a federal solution, states feel like they are left holding the bag,” said Dirk Hegen, an immigration researcher with the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures. “State legislators all over the country try to fill that void. … Constituents require state action.”

In 2007, lawmakers in all 50 states introduced 1,562 pieces of legislation related to immigrants and immigration, compared with 570 proposals in 2006. This year 244 immigration-related bills became law in 46 states, compared with 84 enactments in 32 states in 2006. The information comes from a legislative tracking report compiled by the Immigrant Policy Project at the NCSL.

After passing a package of tough immigration laws in 2006, the Colorado Legislature approved six more immigration-related bills in 2007 and one resolution asking for federal reimbursement for the cost of jailing illegal immigrants.

State and local immigration laws used to be concentrated in immigrant-heavy states like California, Texas, Illinois, Florida and New York. But as modern migrants spread across the country in search of work, immigrant policy has become an issue of nationwide concern.

“On the state and local level they feel the impact of immigration,” said Hegen, who points out that troubles associated with immigration, including overburdened schools and emergency rooms, are felt at the local level. But the benefits of immigration such as a flexible labor pool and mismatched Social Security dollars are reaped by the federal government.

So while immigration policy – meaning the conditions of entry to the United States – is a federal issue, Hegen says, immigrant policy – or how to integrate newcomers into social, economic and civil life – has become the responsibility of state and local governments.

“Different states have different immigrant populations,” Hegen said. “So states come up with a variety of their own solutions – there is no one-size-fits-all for state immigration policy.”

Much of the legislative activity affecting immigrants in 2007 was related to employment, identification and driver’s license requirements, and public benefits. Other bills addressed education, law enforcement, legal services and human trafficking.

With the race for the White House in full gear, Hegen says a comprehensive immigration reform solution is unlikely to emerge in 2008. What we may see are federal proposals that take a piecemeal approach in addressing illegal immigration – such as measures designed only to toughen border security.

But with a federal response unlikely until 2009 at the earliest, the legislative action on immigration will again be largely at the state and local level in 2008. Colorado Republicans have already announced plans to advance the state’s crackdown on illegal immigration. One proposal would require proof of citizenship to register to vote; another would deny bail to illegal immigrants arrested for serious crimes.

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Kate Bernuth

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