Anti-Immigration Efforts At the State Level Jeopardize Reform

It seems almost certain that a bipartisan immigration reform bill will be submitted by Congress this year.

In the Senate, the “Gang of Eight,” a bipartisan group that includes four Republicans and four Democrats, submitted a framework for immigration reform with a goal of submitting a bill in the March timeframe. The House of Representatives is also working on a bipartisan bill. House Speaker John Boehner said, “They basically have an agreement. I’ve not seen the agreement. I don’t know all the pitfalls, but it’s, in my view, the right group of members.”

President Obama displayed his support for the bipartisan effort as well, stating, “The good news is that, for first time in many years, Republicans and Democrats seem ready to tackle this problem together.” 

The congressional bipartisan effort as well as the president’s outspoken support is a breath of fresh air coming out of Washington. Immigration reform has been put on the back burner for far too long resulting in a series of efforts made by states to implement their own immigration measures. The federal legislation being proposed by the bipartisan groups in Congress have the potential of being stymied by state legislatures who feel they should be in control of their immigration policies.

In the absence of what is perceived to be a strong federal policy on immigration, states have aggressively pursued anti-immigration legislation. Mother Jones conducted an exhaustive review of anti-immigration legislation and found that most states passed anywhere from 1 to 6 immigration laws in the years 2010 and 2011. In fact “only seven states (Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, New Hampshire, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Wyoming) failed to pass anti-immigration laws in 2010 and 2011.” Three states, Arizona, Utah and Virginia, passed more than eleven.

Many of those measures have been challenged in court and have set up an adversarial relationship between the states and the Department of Justice. The challenge now becomes reconciling the immigration reform effort at the national level with the efforts that states are taking on their own behalf.

The Dream Act is an example of where the states and the federal government diverge. It is well understood that a Dream Act measure will be part of the bipartisan agreement. The Dream Act provides temporary status to individuals who came to America as minors and who may be in school or pursuing a career in the military. Temporary status would provide “Dreamers” the opportunity to qualify for student financial aid and other social service programs.

A bipartisan group of Congressional members is preparing to reintroduce a bill supporting the Dream Act, and Senator John McCain (R- Ariz.), a member of the Gang of Eight has indicated that the Dream Act needs to be a part of the immigration reform package. But at the state level the reaction to the Dream Act has been mixed at best. For example 14 states passed legislation qualifying dreamers for in state tuition programs while five other states treat them as out of state or international students.

Mother Jones built a database of 164 anti-immigration laws passed by various states and found that states implemented everything ranging from E-Verify requirements to restrictions denying water services. Arizona SB 1070, the “show me your papers” law has been the model for most of the anti-immigration legislation. According to Mother Jones, 35 states have tried to implement similar bills using a cookie cutter process based on leveraging the model bill constructed by American Legislative Exchange Council.

Alabama's HB-56 is an example of one of the most restrictive immigration laws in America. The bill required public schools to verify the residency status of students and submit an annual report on the suspected number of illegal immigrants in the school system.

Furthermore, provisions of the bill would require denying water services — bath, tap, toilet — to those who could not prove they were legal residents of the state. One service company requires residents to submit a copy of their government picture ID that they keep on record. These measures have been struck down by the courts but it shows the disparity between the states and the federal government regarding immigration law.

Alabama, along with Arizona, Georgia, and South Carolina are considered states that are the most anti-immigrant in the nation. Alabama’s immigration legislation was the model for Mitt Romney’s self-deportation policy and Arizona’s law is the model for state level immigration enforcement across the land.  

Arizona’s two senators, McCain and Jeff Flake (R – Ariz.) in addition to South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham are members of the Gang of Eight. They will have to ensure that the bipartisan bill in the Senate will reconcile with the efforts being made in their respective state legislatures.

Although 35 states considered implementing legislation similar to that of Arizona, 24 of them rejected the measures after studying the economic impact. South Carolina, Georgia, and Alabama moved forward with their restrictive legislation. More work is required to get these and other states to support immigration reform at the federal level, otherwise the reform effort has the potential to die in the state legislatures.