Immigration legislation booms in state capitals


September 11, 2013

The drive to reform the nation’s immigration laws may be stalled in Congress, but the national debate it has inspired is at least partly responsible for a spike in new laws passed in state legislatures around the country.

Through the end of June, 43 states and the District of Columbia had passed a total of 377 laws and resolutions related to immigration, according to a report to be issued Wednesday by the National Conference of State Legislators’ Immigration Policy Project. That’s an 83 percent increase from the first half of 2012.

But there’s no consensus outside the Beltway. Just as the immigration debate at the federal level is divided along ideological lines, states controlled by Republican legislatures are taking much different paths than are states controlled by Democratic legislatures.

Lawmakers in Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota, three states controlled by Democratic legislatures and a Democratic governor, all made it easier for undocumented immigrants to be eligible for in-state tuition at state colleges and universities. Republicans run Utah, where students will be required to show proof of citizenship, or that they are eligible non-citizens, to receive federal financial aid. Republicans also run Indiana, where the legislature passed a new law that requires citizenship verification for applications for college financial aid.

Fifteen states now offer in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Colorado followed several other Democratic-controlled states in allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. Of the nine states that addressed whether undocumented immigrants could be eligible for driver’s licenses, only one — Georgia — did so under Republican legislatures. Democratic legislatures in Maine and Nevada both addressed driver’s license eligibility even with a Republican governor in office.

Indiana joined some Republican states in requiring the Department of Motor Vehicles to include Social Security numbers on license applications. And Virginia, another red state, enacted a new law that requires the state Board of Elections to participate in a national system that aims to weed undocumented immigrants from voter lists.

Democratic-controlled Illinois appropriated money for bilingual education and designated funding for immigrant integration services. New York also set aside money for those who speak limited English, while Washington State set up a fund to help employ refugees and immigrants.

Florida, where Republicans control all three levers of state government, passed legislation that requires anyone working at a school to receive a state-issued badge; citizenship or legal status is required to qualify for the badge. Georgia legislators passed a bill to require public employers to verify legal status. A new Arizona law will require proof of citizenship or legal status before someone is admitted to the Mining Advisory Council.

The number of new laws has spiked after a year in a holding pattern, as lower courts ruled on the constitutionality of Arizona’s controversial Senate Bill 1070. On June 25, the Court struck down three provisions of the bill.

But if there’s any consensus among the states, it’s a desire for federal guidance. State legislators passed 25 resolutions specifically asking the federal government to respond to aspects of national immigration policy. Eight states passed resolutions calling for comprehensive immigration reform.

The only thing legislatures in different states can agree on, it turns out, is that federal action will help them do their jobs better.