Even before hope for comprehensive immigration reform died in the Senate in June, state legislators had taken the matter into their own hands. Now that federal action to improve the outdated and ineffective immigration system isn’t expected until 2009, observers say the issue will continue to be a priority for state legislators who are feeling the heat from constituents. “Due to the lack of federal leadership, the states is where the action is going to be on immigration in the coming year,” said Joel Barkin, executive director of the Progressive States Network (PSN), a policy institute based in New York that recently released a strategy report to assist legislators and activists to fight state anti-immigration proposals during the 2008 session.
As of July, over 1,400 pieces of legislation related to immigrants and immigration had been introduced in the 50 states, according to the bipartisan National Conference on State Legislatures. In 2006, Colorado legislators passed a package of immigration bills regarded as among the toughest in the nation. In the 2008 session, illegal immigration is again on the agenda in Colorado and in most other states. Hundreds more proposals aimed at curtailing state benefits to illegal immigrants, punishing employers who hire them, strengthening ID requirements and denying bail to illegal immigrants who are accused of serious felonies are expected in the upcoming session.
The PSN report emphasizes the need to change the negative political rhetoric that blames immigrants for economic and social ills by pursuing policy that raises wages and living standards for all workers, documented, undocumented and citizens alike.
“We have to recognize that we are in a moment of tremendous, highly pronounced anti-immigrant hysteria,” said California State Sen. Gilbert Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), who participated in a conference call with other state legislators and activists from around the country last week to discuss the PSN strategy outline. “We have to realize that is part of the context … But polls show that Americans have a greater sense of decency and a greater sense of fairness on this issue.”
Cedillo emphasized the need for pro-immigrant groups to build broad coalitions with business, labor and law enforcement interests. Pro-immigrant policymakers are hoping to make the case that there is no leadership future for politicians who promote punitive immigration policies that alienate a growing bloc of Latino voters, many with strong ties to undocumented immigrants. An estimated 7.5 million Latinos voted in 2000, a number expected to double to over 14 million in 2008, over 10 percent of the total electorate.