Immigration Reform 2013: Federal Government Solution Would Be Better Than States Finding a Fix

As the gang of 8 in the Senate moves forward on their immigration reform agenda, the discussion of the best practices of ensuring immigrants have a stable path to citizenship extends far beyond Capitol Hill.

Slate reports that there are over 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States, but their residence is primarily concentrated in five states: Nevada, California, Texas, New Jersey and Arizona. This consolidation brings up important questions about the role of states and the federal government in drafting and enacting immigration reform policy.

The map also bolsters claims that there is an influx of immigrants, specifically Latino immigrants, to states like Texas and Arizona, who as Justice Antonin Scalia puts it, “invade [citizens] property, strain their social services, and even place their lives in jeopardy.”

An American Constitution Society report notes that “States and localities are increasingly considering and passing laws that create state immigration crimes, enact state immigration enforcement schemes, regulate the renting of property to certain non-citizens, penalize businesses for hiring unauthorized workers, and discriminate in the provision of public services.” While state governments can assess the needs of their region more successfully than blanket federal policy, leaving immigration issues to the states leaves room for local and state law enforcement agencies to enact discriminatory and restrictive immigration laws. 

State legislation can often be politically popular in the area but infringe upon the civil rights of its residents. Arizona’s much maligned S.B. 1070, specifically the clause still in effect “which requires police to determine the immigration status of someone arrested or detained when there is ‘reasonable suspicion,’ they are not in the U.S. legally” was an infringement upon the rights of those who live there and marginalized the people of color who reside in the Arizona. While no one would contend that federal legislation is ever perfect, the representation of a national diversity of opinion that keeps Congress in gridlock also restricts its abilities to pass overwhelmingly discriminatory legislation. 

This is not to say of course, that the federal government has the most productive policies on the books, with the continued inclusion of the error-plagued E-Verify advocated on both sides of the aisle and the minimal attention paid to the expensive and dehumanizing incarceration of undocumented immigrants in detention centers.  However, it’s clear that in spite of these maintained policies, comprehensive federal immigration reform is the best measure to prevent the infringement upon the human rights and civil liberties of undocumented immigrants. 

But what can we take away from Slate’s charting of undocumented immigrant locations, if one rejects the need for greater local and state mandates on immigration reform? Simply put, the awareness that knowing where undocumented immigrants tend to reside is crucial for immigration reform. 

Perhaps greater enforcement of labor laws, and investigation into the labor practices of large employers in the states (a la Georgia) with such significant numbers of undocumented immigrants would be a better use of this map, ensuring accountability among employers and preventing abuse. That’s an better use of state power. With these measures, coupled with a (hopefully) economically viable and thoughtful national immigration reform policy, we can start working towards a future that’s secure and just for every American resident.