Since large-scale efforts to overhaul federal immigration law faltered in Congress in 2006, states have taken an increasingly active role in the immigration debate.
The chief battleground has been Arizona, the chief entry point for migrants since the federal government tightened up border security in Texas and California. But with the foreign-born population climbing across the country, the topic of illegal immigration has emerged in nearly every state capitol.
The most contentious issues so far have been:
1. Cops on the immigration beat Well before Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070 in 2010, state and local officials argued over the role of local police — rather than federal authorities — in enforcing immigration laws. Many large cities once barred their cops from asking suspects and witnesses about their immigration status, but critics assailed the practice allowing “sanctuary cities.”
Initially, under the Bush administration, states and localities lined up to take part in a partnership with the federal government called 287(g). But demand quickly outpaced the Department of Homeland Security’s capacity to train and monitor all the local police departments that wanted to join. The agency began focusing instead on screening suspects already in jails and prisons and underwent a major overhaul under the Obama administration. Still, critics contend the process still leads to the deportation of low-level offenders.
The passage of Arizona’s law reignited fears that police would use racial profiling while enforcing immigration laws, even though the law now expressly forbids the practice.
That provision goes beyond nearly all other criminal laws in the United States by explicitly barring racial profiling, says Brewer spokesman Paul Senseman. Most other laws never even mention racial profiling, he says, because it’s already illegal and police are generally trusted to obey the law.
For Arizona cops, a high-profile dilemma (5/5/2010)
2. Crackdowns in the workplace Several states have tried to make sure that companies are not hiring unauthorized immigrants. Arizona was one of the first states to do so, but Oklahoma and Georgia also passed sweeping laws. The U.S. Supreme Court is now considering whether the Arizona law is too broad under federal law. Questions also remain over the effectiveness of the 2007 measure.
In fact, despite the dozens of raids, only two companies have ever been forced to close their doors under Arizona’s three-year-old employee verification law. The punishments in those cases were trivial: A Subway sandwich shop agreed to close on Easter and Thanksgiving, and a water park agreed to a 10-day suspension, but only after it already had gone out of business.
The Legal Arizona Workers Act may be tough, but even its supporters say it has been a disappointment. It faces plenty of opposition here in Arizona, especially among business owners and civil rights advocates.
Arizona employer law nets immigrants, not companies (11/30/2010)
3. Unauthorized immigrants behind the wheel In the middle of the decade, at least 10 states had no requirement that motorists be in the country legally to get a driver’s license. Today, only three states–New Mexico, Utah and Washington–allow unauthorized immigrants to drive.
The move to revoke driving privileges from unauthorized immigrants came in the wake of the federal Real ID law, which called for tougher rules for identification to prevent future terrorist attacks. But the more stringent requirements affect citizens as well as non-citizens.
Recently, Maine began requiring driver’s license holders to show they are in the country legally. Matthew Dunlap, who as secretary of state has overseen the transition, says the change has had no appreciable impact on the number of unlicensed or uninsured drivers on the road. Still, he says, “I do deal with angry citizens all of the time.”
Driver’s licenses for immigrants becoming rarer (7/2/2010)
4. In-state tuition and college admission While the DREAM Act has languished on Capitol Hill, 10 states have allowed undocumented students who attend local high schools to qualify for in-state tuition at public universities. Those policies have routinely come under attack but, unlike permission to drive, the in-state tuition policies have not been overturned.
In recent years, though, several states, particularly in the South, have sought to limit access to public universities and community colleges, even if the immigrant student paid full tuition.
The in-state tuition policies have also been attacked in court, but none of the legal challenges thus far has been successful.
Children who are in the country illegally are entitled to free school from kindergarten through high school, according to a 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision, Plyler v. Doe
. But the federal law
bars states from providing “a postsecondary education benefit” to undocumented students that they don’t also offer to any other U.S. citizen — whether or not they live in the state.
Defenders of California’s law say in-state tuition is not a “benefit” under the law — as a scholarship would be — because it is not a monetary award.
In-state tuition law faces challenges (12/12/2008)
5. Birthright citizenship Emboldened by the success in enacting SB 1070, several influential Arizona lawmakers pressed to change the rules that allow all children born in the United States, including those whose parents are in the country illegally, to become citizens.
The effort in Arizona, spearheaded by longtime anti-illegal immigration crusader and incoming state Senate President Russell Pearce, is remarkable for two reasons. First, it moves the focus of the immigration debate from those who are in the country illegally to their children, who currently become American citizens if they are born in the United States. Second, Arizona will not be alone in questioning the principle of “birthright citizenship,” because lawmakers in at least a dozen more states also have agreed to push similar legislation.
Arizona’s next immigration debate: babies born in U.S. (12/16/2010)
6. National Guard troops on the border Frequently, politicians call for an increased presence of National Guard troops on the U.S.-Mexican border. Military forces are only allowed to operate in a limited capacity there, but usually they aid the Border Patrol and local law enforcement with logistic support. They helped erect sections of the border fence, handle administrative tasks and detect migrants and smugglers.
Both Presidents Bush and Obama have ordered National Guard deployments to the border, but governors can also call in the units. Texas Governor Rick Perry and former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson made regular use of the Guard. I asked Richardson how the deployments helped the situation the border. Here’s what he told me:
What the National Guard does is, one, their physical presence on its own is a deterrent. Secondly, they are very effective in terms of intelligence gathering, setting up… observation of the trails, some of the reconnaissance and detection equipment. They have limited roles. They cannot apprehend anyone. But if you ask the Border Patrol what their biggest assets are, they say, ‘National Guardsmen.’”
New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson on the issues (6/17/2010)