In Absence Of Federal Immigration Reform, States Are Taking Action


The federal government is responsible for creating permanent immigration policy. But in the absence of congressional immigration reform over the past decade, states are taking matters into their own hands.

The vast majority of U.S. states have begun to adopt policies to respond to their populations of undocumented immigrants, such as granting driver’s licenses or in-state tuition regardless of their residents’ immigration status, a new RAND Corporation report found.

The RAND report observed that 46 states adopted 391 immigration-related laws or resolutions in the first half of 2015 related to employment, education, housing, health care, and other areas that affect daily life for undocumented immigrants. This state activity has been steadily rising over the past decade; there was a tenfold increase in the number of state-level immigration-related laws between 2005 and 2013, for example.

Some of those policies include requiring local law enforcement officials to enforce federal immigration law; requiring employers to verify work eligibility; and either reducing or expanding driver’s licenses, in-state tuition, and prenatal care and child health insurance to undocumented immigrants. Only 11 states had not adopted one or more policies that researchers looked into.

Rand Corporation state policies March 2016


Using a cost-benefit analysis to assess the impact of specific state-level immigration-related policies, RAND researchers pointed out that the short-term effects of policy changes could affect not just undocumented immigrants, but also legal immigrants and U.S. citizens.

For example, “expanding state- and local-level immigration-related enforcement may affect authorized immigrants and the native-born if law enforcement costs increase overall or if greater immigration-related enforcement crowds out other law enforcement activity.” And restricitve enforcement of immigration laws on the local level could discourage U.S. citizen children with undocumented parents from participating in Medicaid.

Congress has yet to pass any immigration legislation this year. But there are some polarizing bills in the pipeline that could derail the ability of undocumented immigrants with long-standing roots to stay in the country. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) introduced legislation to provide “resources and incentives for the enforcement of immigration laws in the interior of the United States and for other purposes.” Other lawmakers like Reps. Dennis Ross (R-FL) and David Schweikert (R-AZ) have introduced bills to expand the border wall at the southern U.S.-Mexico border.

Of the federal immigration policies introduced in 2015, some of the most polarizing congressional bills were reactive in nature, including a bill that would expedite the deportation proceedings of unaccompanied migrant Central American children coming across the southern U.S. border. And soon after an immigrant shot and killed a San Francisco, California resident, Cruz introduced “Kate’s Law” to increase the penalties of people who illegally re-enter the country after deportation.

Though there hasn’t yet been a comprehensive plan to fix the current immigration system, the topic of immigration has certainly played a critical role in the 2016 presidential election. Both Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have advocated for the mass deportation of undocumented immigrants. And with a presidential executive action on immigration tied up in legal proceedings, the U.S. Supreme Court may soon take up a lawsuit by 26 mostly Republican lawmakers that would affect as many as five million undocumented immigrants waiting to see if they could qualify for temporary work authorization and deportation relief.

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