13. Immigration Reform
States have grown increasingly impatient with the lack of federal immigration reform.
To that end, 80 percent of states enacted some type of immigration law or resolution during the first six months of 2011, according to an August report by the National Conference of State Legislatures. More than 1,500 immigration-related bills and resolutions were introduced—a record number and an increase of 16 percent over 2010 numbers, NCSL reported.
The rapid increase of immigrant populations in states other than those with a traditionally high concentration of immigrants underlies the importance of immigration to the states, said Audrey Singer, senior fellow with the Metropolitan Policy Program at The Brookings Institution.
“Since the mid-1990s, immigrants began to settle in many states relatively untouched by immigration,” said Singer.
The largest concentrations of immigrants lived in California, Texas, Florida and New York, she said. That’s changing.
“Places like Georgia, Tennessee and North Carolina in the Southeast, and Utah and Nevada in the Mountain West have seen their foreign-born populations surge recently,” said Singer.
Because of the rapid influx of immigration, many states don’t have the infrastructure to deal with their burgeoning populations. In contrast to states like California and Texas that have received a steady flow of immigrants for many years, other states aren’t equipped to handle the rise in population.
“These new destination states have little in the way of programs and policies that reach out to immigrants,” said Singer. “There are many implications—schools, public safety and health care—to name a few, but also there are real fiscal implications. These costs have risen to the top of concerns, especially at a time of shrinking state and municipal budgets.”
States addressed a variety of immigration-related issues in 2011, ranging from education and employment to driver’s licenses and voting. Five states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah—enacted omnibus immigration legislation.
These five states included near-identical provisions in their legislation to those found in Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, the controversial 2010 legislation requiring law enforcement officials to make a “reasonable attempt” to determine a person’s immigration status when coming into lawful contact with them.
Like Arizona, the laws in nearly all these states have been challenged in court this year. Federal district court judges have struck down portions of the laws passed by Alabama, Georgia and Indiana. A judge issued a temporary injunction against one of Utah’s laws, House Bill 497, in May. The injunction hearing has been delayed until Nov. 18, The Associated Press reported.
Singer believes states will continue to introduce new enforcement laws that are restrictive in nature, especially in states with small but fast-growing immigrant populations. However, she believes a number of laws will help immigrants.
“I think states will continue to tackle the issue, but it will not all be about enforcement. Some states are actually interested in luring immigrants as a way to repopulate and create jobs.”
Going forward, Singer believes states will continue addressing immigration reform without much help from the federal government.
“The debate has become so acrimonious that there is little depth to the arguments within Congress anymore,” she said.