PSN 2013 Immigration Roundup: Big State Wins for Immigrants in a Year Focused on Federal Reform

With 2013 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the third in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states.

This year, as the aftershock of an election decided by the emerging electorate settled in, the focus of immigration policy has been on the federal level, where the U.S. Senate succeeded in passing a bill aimed at simplifying our broken immigration system and creating a roadmap to citizenship for the estimated 11 million aspiring citizens currently in the country.

The national call for progress has also energized state fights for more inclusive immigration policy and, notably, stemmed the flow of anti-immigrant bills that seemed omnipresent just two short years ago. While the long-awaited federal package for immigration reform makes its way through the legislative process, here’s a recap of the action legislators took in states across the country.

State Immigration Proposals in 2013 Sessions: Highlights
(Source: Associated Press, May 2013)

The Good: Huge Progress on Tuition Equity, Driver’s Licenses

Driver’s Licenses Spread

2013 was a landmark year for common-sense state policies aimed at making our roads safer and integrating immigrants into our economy more fully. Before this year’s session, there were only three states that offered driver’s licenses to residents regardless of status. That number is now nine.

  • In Illinois, a bipartisan group of legislators passed SB 957 which created a temporary license for qualifying undocumented immigrants.
  • In Oregon, Gov. John Kitzhaber signed SB 833, creating new short-term renewable licenses for undocumented drivers.
  • In Colorado, an amazing group of undocumented activists worked in conjunction with Sen. Jessie Ulibarri to pass SB 251in a banner year for immigrants in the state.
  • In Vermont, after a favorable report from a study commission last year and incredible activism by Migrant Justice, Gov. Peter Shumlin signed S 38 into law.
  • In Maryland, an impressive coalition of community, labor, and elected officials moved the legislature to pass SB 715/HB 789, the Maryland Highway Safety Act of 2013.
  • In Connecticut, Gov. Dannel Malloy signed HB 6495 into law, making renewable licenses available to residents regardless of immigration status.


Map: Tuition Equity, State by State

(Source: State Laws and Policies on Access to Higher Education for Immigrants, NILC, May 2013)

Tuition Equity Passes Hurdles

2013 was also another big year for the broad effort to erase barriers for talented undocumented youth to pursue higher education and benefit their communities. Before this year’s sessions, there were 14 states with laws or administrative policies in place to expand educational opportunity to undocumented students. That number is now 16.

  • In Colorado, the ten-year battle to win tuition equity at the General Assembly ended with the passage of ASSET, SB 13.
  • In Oregon, another ten-year battle to open up opportunity for Oregon students ended with Gov. Kitzhaber’s signature on HB 2787.


The Bad: Anti-Immigrant Copycats and Reactions to Deferred Action

Georgia Takes Another Bite at the Anti-Immigrant Apple

In stark contrast to the harsh anti-immigrant policies dominating state legislatures in the last few years, 2013 has seen a remarkable slowdown in omnibus bills aimed at making states more unwelcoming to new Americans.

One of the few states defying the trend towards a more commonsense immigration policy this year was Georgia. In 2011, Georgia passed their SB 1070 copycat, HB 87. Amid massive protests from community, faith, and business groups, Gov. Nathan Deal and the legislature vowed to revisit the law and dial back some of its excesses.

Instead, SB 160 pushed Georgia further into the abyss by blocking undocumented immigrants from receiving state-issued driver’s licenses, grants, public housing, and retirement benefits. In addition, the law created massive paperwork requirements for all city, county, and state government agencies with more than two employees by mandating participation in the controversial and inaccurate federal E-Verify pilot program.

Reactions to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA)

On June 15th, 2012 President Obama announced a new policy within the Department of Homeland Security called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). The much-needed policy shielded certain DREAM Act-eligible youth from deportation while issuing work permits and opening up a pathway for these undocumented youth to apply for state driver’s licenses. While most states reacted positively to the announcement and welcomed the chance to bring these talented young people into the mainstream of their economies and societies, governors of two states allowed anti-immigrant sentiment to drive their decision to deny driver’s license to DACA recipients.

In Nebraska, Gov. Dave Heineman obstinately refused to comply with DACA directives. In Arizona, notorious anti-immigrant Gov. Jan Brewer reinforced her state’s reputation as ground-zero for anti-immigrant policy by forcefully denying driver’s licenses to DACA recipients. Both Nebraska's and Arizona’s policies are currently being challenged in court.

Other Highlights: Community Policing and the Push for Comprehensive Reform

TRUST Act Makes Headway

The fight to end the expensive and expansive immigration dragnet that has led to record deportations was advanced this year in Connecticut, where the TRUST Act passed both houses. Based on a model that has been pushed in California, Connecticut’s bill (HB 6659) will empower local law enforcement to make realistic decisions about when to honor federal immigration detainers. By limiting participation in the federal Secure Communities program, Connecticut law enforcement could focus its policing efforts on serious and violent crime and re-engage with an immigrant community that has long associated local police with immigration roundups. California’s TRUST Act (AB 4) also passed the Assembly for the third time and hopes to pass the final hurdle after seeing a former version vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown last year.

Federal Immigration Reform Takes the Big Stage

While happenings at the state level on immigration policy have garnered significant attention, the effort to reform federal immigration law has been the primary focus of lawmakers and advocates this year.

The bipartisan “Gang of 8” in the U.S. Senate introduced S. 744, which among its many provisions creates a 13-year citizenship pipeline for most undocumented immigrants. While the bill contains a plethora of counterproductive items (including a cutoff date for the citizenship pipeline in 2011 and a broad expansion of the notoriously inaccurate E-Verify system) it has largely been seen as an important step forward in creating a common-sense immigration system built for the 21st century. As such, legislators in more than 16 states this year introduced resolutions calling on Congress to fix our broken immigration system and create a roadmap to citizenship for the more than 11 million aspiring citizens in the country.

While S. 744 recently passed the full Senate before a House version makes its way through the legislative process, there is still a long way for it to go. Already, the passage of an amendment which pushes for an unprecedented militarization of the border has met with serious disapproval from immigration advocates and has led some to withdraw their support.

With a tougher road ahead in the House, the question of whether Congress will be ultimately successful in passing a comprehensive reform bill that includes a roadmap to citizenship for all 11 million aspiring citizens remains unclear. But either way, advancing pro-immigrant, pro-growth policies will continue to be the smart move for states interested in welcoming immigrants and their economic contributions in the months and years to come.


Immigration Policy Center — A Guide to S.744: Understanding the 2013 Senate Immigration Bill
National Immigration Law Center — Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals: FAQ
Immigration Impact — Pro-Immigrant Measures Make Gains at the State Level
Stateline — After Years of Defeats, Immigrants Win Big State Victories in 2013