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State Immigration Policies & Politics in 2008

In November, Progressive States Network launched our State Immigration Project to support efforts by legislators and advocates to challenge anti-immigrant policies and promote smarter, humane policy that would address the concerns of voters. 

We published our State Immigration Project: Policy Options for 2008 in December (see the HTML version with links to resources) to outline smart policies states have been adopting to better integrate new immigrants into their communities, as an alternative to the scapegoating of immigrants adopted in some states. We have continued to update interested allies with our biweekly State Immigration Project Update with ongoing analysis of state developments related to immigration policy (email immigration@progressivestates.org to signup). 

This Dispatch is a chance to outline current political developments and summarize some key proposals being promoted by progressive legislators, as well as problems with the negative policies being adopted by some states. The Dispatch starts by profiling how Minnesota legislative leaders responded to anti-immigrant proposals by their governor -- a model for other states. It then outlines the broad range of alternative policies that can address the underlying concerns of voters, from cracking down on low-wage employers, better integrating new immigrants, messaging the preventive care advantages of benefits for immigrant families, highlighting how outreach in immigrant communities promotes public safety, and how state leaders can take on some of the root international causes of immigration. We then emphasize that, in the context of both current presidential primaries and recent state elections, anti-immigrant politics has not been a winning issue at the polls and that rising citizenship campaigns and voting in immigrant communities will doom anti-immigrant politicians in the future. Lastly, we highlight new immigration policy resources available to state policymakers.


Please join us for a conference call on progressive strategies on immigration in the states on Thursday, February 14th at 2pm EST.

RSVP at http://salsa.democracyinaction.org/o/1665/event/index.jsp?event_KEY=36803

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Minnesota-- A Model State Response to Anti-Immigrant Proposals

If one wants a model example of how to respond to anti-immigrant policy announcements, there are good lessons to be learned from Minnesota. Last month legislators and advocates responded to Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty's announcement of a slew of executive actions and legislative proposals to "counter illegal immigration" through local enforcement of federal immigration laws and barring state contractors who don't use the E-Verify system to screen employees. Lawmakers and advocates emphasized the political cynicism of the proposals, the likely budget costs, and the likely damage to public safety:

  • A Political Play by Pawlenty: As soon as the proposals were announced, State Senator Patricia Torres Ray noted that "this is the same proposal from two years ago and once again it's an election year," highlighting the political cynicism of those manipulating the immigration issue. Javier Morillo-Alicea, president of SEIU Local 26, stated that "this has everything to do with the presidential race ," since Pawlenty may be angling for a slot as Vice-Presidential nominee. Minnesota Senate Majority Leader Larry Pogemiller echoed Morillo's conjecture saying, "Perhaps the governor is sharpening his message for the national stage."
  • The Budget Cost: Sen. Leo Foley, a member of the Senate Public Safety Budget Committee, highlighted the financial costs of states trying to shoulder enforcement costs that should be handled by the federal government: "What it's going to do is bring down the Minnesota treasury."
  • Undermining Public Safety: Robin Phillips, executive director of Minnesota Advocates for Human Rights, highlighted the likely damage to public safety found the Governor's plan: "The governor's actions stand to damage community policing efforts, create significant fear in immigrant communities, and prevent victims from coming forward." Phillips also noted that representatives from the Sheriff's Association; the Police and Peace Officers Association; labor, business, immigrant  and groups; faith-based organizations; human rights advocates; and community organizations all testified against similar proposed legislation in 2006.

Even the Minnesota Chicano Latino Affairs Council (CLAC) -- 11 of whose 15 members where appointed by the governor -- issued a statement sharply at odds with Pawlenty's proposals. Pawlenty himself acknowledged that, aside from his unilateral executive orders, only the less controversial measures, like strengthening human trafficking laws and tougher penalties for identity theft, would likely move in the legislature. 

While some progressive legislators are giving into the hysteria of anti-immigrant campaigners, Minnesota leaders, like many of the other legislators and advocates detailed below, have found both messaging and proposals that can unite all their state populations, rather than divide them through scapegoating vulnerable immigrant populations.

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Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy

Given the justifiable concern by voters about illegal sweatshops, a number of state leaders are looking beyond the issue of punishing immigrant workers to concentrating on raising wages for all workers-- and increasing penalties for wage law violators across the board. (See Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy for what legislators did in 2007 and earlier in this area).

Wage Enforcement vs. Employer Sanctions:  Instead of promoting a narrow tactic like sanctions against employers of undocumented workers, which only drives the problem of low-wage employment underground, New York State has created a new Bureau of Immigrant Workers' Rights which has already moved forward in cracking down on low-wage law violators, sending a van out to churches and community groups to encourage immigrant workers to come forward to report wage law violations -- an important lesson that outreach, not pushing immigrants into the shadows, is the key to raising wage standards for all. Virginia Delegate Dwight Jones has introduced HB 1038 which would enhance enforcement of the state minimum wage law. Other states are considering proposals to significantly increase penalties for violating minimum wage and other workplace standards.

Unfortunately, other states are still pursuing the narrow and often self-defeating approach of punishing only employers of undocumented immigrants, while ignoring the broader violation of wage laws hurting all workers. Chambers in Indiana and South Carolina have both approved bills with employer sanctions for hiring undocumented immigrants, while states like Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky and Wyoming are considering them. Many legislators denounced these proposals, with Indiana Sen. Tim Lanane questioning whether complaints filed over immigrant hirings would be based on anything other than an employee's race: "I think we are setting a dangerous precedent here." In considering the Kentucky bill, House Judiciary Chairwoman Kathy Stein expressed doubt about even holding a vote given that the bill was probably preempted by federal law.

Ignoring Business Warnings from OK, AZ and TN: What is disturbing is that states are pursuing these employer sanctions bills despite warnings from many business leaders in both Oklahoma and Arizona of the dire economic effects of the laws in those states. "We are literally shutting down immigration, and as we shut down immigration, we shut down the economy," says Joe Sigg, director of government relations for the Arizona Farm Bureau, a statewide coalition of farmers and ranchers. A housing market already damaged by the subprime mortgage mess is being further undermined as immigrant renters have lost their jobs and handed their keys back to landlords. Similiarly, 25,000 immigrants, both legal and undocumented, have left northeastern Oklahoma, according to the Greater Tulsa Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, leaving struggling businesses in their wake.

In Tennessee, despite the new legal sanctions against hiring undocumented workers, employers are shunning the federal E-Verify system as unreliable, with only 542 our of 117,903 employers registering to use E-Verify. Nashville immigration lawyer Elliott Ozment has advised business clients not to use the system because "there is a 10 to 15 percent error rate in the database" and employers fear that a person wrongly denied a job using the system could the employer under federal (anti-discrimination) law."

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Immigrant Integration Policies

A number of states are moving forward with programs to better integrate existing immigrants into their communities (See Immigrant Integration and Naturalization for what legislators did in 2007 and earlier in this policy area):

  • Virginia's HB 1174 which would establish an Office of Immigrant Assistance to aid legal immigrants in moving along the path to citizenship, while HB 419 / HB 437 would help ease financial pressure on schools with expanded needs for english language instruction.
  • Massachusett's Governor Deval Patrick is pushing for approval of in-state tuition at state colleges and universities for all immigrant residents via approval by the 11-member Board of Higher Education.
  • In Texas, education officials revised rules this month that had prevented some veterans who are immigrants from receiving college tuition exemptions.
  • In Arizona, 100 school superintendents from across the state rallied at the state Capitol to push for an additional $300 million to better educate new immigrants in English, since while the state has declared English the official language, it hasn't adequately funded schools for English-language instruction. 
  • In Wisconsin, a social justice group, Empowerment, Solidarity, Truth, Hope, Equality and Reform of Fox Valley Interfaith Organizing Group, commonly called ESTHER, is working through the local Catholic Church to expand immigrant language couses and help for naturalization efforts.
  • School districts in Illinois are opening innovative immigrant "welcome centers" to work with both students and their parents to help them better integrate into the community.    
  • And a push in Virginia to deny undocumented immigrants in-state tuition has stalled in the state Senate.

On the other hand, many school officials in Arizona have noted the drop in school attendance by many immigrant children, as their families fear letting them even leave home to go to school due to the anti-immigrant atmosphere in that state.

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Immigrant Benefits Policies

While some states are proposing bills to cut-off public services to identified undocumented immigrants, there are many states that are resisting these attacks and even moving forward with promoting preventive services for new immigrants. (See Immigrants and Public Benefits for what legislators did in 2007 and earlier in this policy area). 

In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle has highlighted the bureaucratic costs of screening programs established in other states, noting Colorado spent $2 million and didn't save a dime, while Kansas spent $1 million last year to comply with federal proof-of-citizenship requirements for the state SCHIP program and caught only one undocumented immigrant using the program. And as an article in USA Today emphasized, anti-immigrant proposals may be discouraging families from getting early treatment for sickness or injuries, just increasing the cost when they show up at the hospital in an emergency. While broad-based health care reform approved in the California House stalled in the state Senate, there was consensus that providing care to all Californians, regardless of immigration status, was not only the humane thing to do, but would ultimately save money in the long-term for the state.

On the other hand, some legislators in states are vying to propose the most extreme anti-immigrant measures. Arizona Republican Representative Russell Pearce has proposed denying even marriage licenses and the right to rent an apartment to undocumented immigrants, while Nebraska's Sen. Tom White is pushing for a bill to recover the costs for public education, health care and any other public program used by an undocumented immigrant or their families.

Utah and South Carolina have both been debating resolutions by the states demanding that the federal government better reimburse state costs for immigrant benefits, an area where state leaders could find consensus. U.S. Representative Gabrielle Giffords is leading an effort by 41 members of Congress from 18 states to get full federal funding for program that reimburses states and localities for arrest, incarceration and transportation costs associated with illegal immigrants who commit crimes. 

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Immigration Outreach for Public Safety

Even as some states seek to enlist local law enforcement in enforcing federal immigration law, initiatives are moving forward to protect public safety through outreach and community policing in immigrant communities. (See Immigrant Outreach as Public Safety and Anti-Terror Policy for what legislators did in 2007 and earlier in this policy area). 

To encourage cooperation with the police, Virginia's HB 307 shields crime victims and witnesses from immigration inquiries.  New York Sen. Jose Serrano also introduced a measure, S 6738, to make it the policy of all New York State employees to keep immigration status confidential when providing essential services for law-abiding people. Sen. Serrano noted public safety was the primary reason he was introducing the bill, stating that, "It is simply unacceptable that so many crimes against undocumented immigrants go unreported because they are afraid to come forward to the police. This bill will go a long way in ensuring that all people within the state of New York are able to feel safe and secure."

Even as proposals proliferate to have local police enforce federal immigration law, many legislators and advocates are rejecting the approach.  In Iowa, the Senate's top Democrat, Mike Gronstal, has rejected a plan by GOP Senators to have state and local law enforcement train with federal immigration authorities, saying immigration is a federal responsibility and the state needs to keep its police focused on local crimes like meth distribution.

The Danger of Racial Profiling: Hubert Williams, head of the research organization Police Foundation, has highlighted the dangers of racial profiling when local agencies bear the responsibility for immigration enforcement.  Since Alabama state troopers began training with federal ICE agents, immigrant advocates have noted that immigrants are now more hesitant to talk to police when they are victimes of crime, making them easier prey for criminals who know their crimes won't get reported to the police. In California, a rash of violent attacks against day laborers -- who often carry cash -- has emphasized both the racial profiling of immigrants as crime victims and the reluctance of many immigrants to report crimes out of fear of deportation.

In Arizona, immigrant rights groups are building a racial profiling case against Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been targetting patrols in neighborhoods with high levels of undocumented immigration. Six Alabama cities are using laws that impound cars driven by unlicensed motorists, laws aimed at intimidating undocumented immigrants according to critics. On the other hand, the Anchorage, Alaska city assembly rejected a proposal to have police check motorists' citizenship during traffic stops and arrests.

Drivers Licenses:  An estimated 5000 immigrants, immigrant rights advocates and supporters gathered at the Oregon State Capitol in Salem to protest Oregon Governor Ted Kulongoski's executive order to deny driver's licenses to anyone unable to prove Oregon residency and produce a Social Security number. Following the rally, about 50 people testified in support of access to driver's licenses, but the House Transportation Committee voted in favor of introducing a bill to deny licenses to undocumented immigrants.  Still, the new Oregon business-led Essential Worker Immigration Coalition is campaigning against the bill, arguing that denying licenses could lead to loss of thousands of needed workers in the state. 

Unfortunately, after Michigan made a sudden announcement this month stopping all licenses not only for undocumented but also legal non-permanent residents, only Hawaii, Maine, New Mexico, Utah and Washington still issue licenses to undocumented immigrants, and In Utah, the Republican-controlled House Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee passed a bill along party lines that would revoke the state's privilege card that allows undocumented immigrants to register and insure their motor vehicles.  

New drivers license rules have created a massive burden on both citizens and legal residents. In Oklahoma, their anti-immigrant law, HB 1804, has been "wreaking havoc on law-abiding citizens," created headaches of paperwork and delays for those applying for a new license or renewing an expired one. In Georgia, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution argued that a proposed drivers license bill would deny drivers licenses to legal immigrants with poor written English skills, denying them jobs and throwing them onto welfare rolls.  And in North Carolina, used car dealers are reporting a drop in sales as the state has cracked down on driver's licenses for undocumented immigrants, just part of lost income for many businesses.

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Taking on the International Causes of Immigration

Often lost in the debate on immigration are policies to deal with the economic and social problems in foreign countries driving people to the United States in the first place.  Advocates and legislators are increasingly arguing for solutions that deal with core problems of bad trade deals lowering wages and poverty in other countries, not just scapegoating immigrants themselves. As Gladys Gould of the Providence Presbyterian Church said at a Rhode Island rally, the "global economy...and free trade agreements like NAFTA" are hurting workers' wages on both sides of the border and leading to current conflicts over immigration.

In Oklahoma, state Representative Rebecca Hamilton, has filed HB 3067 to address some of those roots causes of immigration.  Rep. Hamilton's bill which would repeal portions of last year's anti-immigration law and instead make it illegal for the state of Oklahoma to contract with any company that has closed American facilities and opened new factories outside the country unless they operate those factories in compliance with United States wage, safety and human rights guarantees. Citing U.S. Department of Labor statistics, the legislation notes that wages in both Mexico and the United States have fallen since the ratification of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  As Rep. Hamiliton argues:

Illegal immigration is in large part a direct result of the failure of United States corporations operating south of the border to be good corporate citizens in those countries. Legislation that tries only to punish people and pit one group of low-income workers against another doesn't help the problem.

This is in line with efforts by state and local governments across the country to adopt Sweatfree Government Purchasing rules. Governors from the states of Maine, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have signed onto calls for a Sweatfree Consortium and advocates are publicizing a Model Sweatfree Procurement Policy to help raise wage standards both at home and abroad-- a critical tool for easing the economic suffering driving people to immigrate to the US in the first place.

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Elections Proving Anti-Immigrant Politics is Losing Issue

Immigration has been the issue that many on the Right-- especially panderers to anti-immigrant forces like Mitt Romney -- thought would define the 2008 elections.  Instead, the main Republican author of national comprehensive immigration reform, John McCain, has emerged as the likely GOP nominee -- and there is some justice that it was Republican Latinos who gave McCain his margin of victory in the key Florida primary.  GOP Latino voters gave McCain 54% their voters to just 14% for Romney. Since Latinos made up 12% of the GOP primary voters, doing the math, that added up almost exactly to the overall 5% McCain margin of victory in Florida.

The remaining two Democrat candidates are now vying hard for Latino and voters from other immigrant communities over support for both comprehensive federal legislation and opposition to misguided state anti-immigrant policies, including Sen. Obama strongly defending state policies granting drivers licenses to undocumented residents.

The importance of voters from immigrant communities and the broader failure of anti-immigrant politics is part of a trend Progressive States has highlighted, including progressive gains in both 2006 and 2007 elections and defeat of anti-immigrant campaigners despite rhetoric that immigration would be a trump card for conservative politicians.

Rising Immigrant Voting Population: The importance of immigrant voters is only going to rise in coming years.  Even as some politicians are ramping up the rhetoric against undocumented immigrants, the reality is that they will be facing an unprecedented number of new legal immigrants voters this year, as new citizenship applications nearly doubled from 731,000 in fiscal year 2006 to 1.4 million in 2007.  In July and August 2007 alone, federal immigration officials received more than 500,000 applications for naturalization -- three times what it normally receives in a two-month period.

Some credit the rocketing number of applications to a rush to avoid the fee increase (from $400 to $675) that took place at the end of July 2007.  Others say the rise in anti-immigrant sentiment and laws encourage new-comers to file.  But no doubt much of the credit must be handed to the massive citizenship drive "Ya es hora - Ciudadania " - "Citizenship, it's time!" - launched by immigrant rights groups and Spanish-language media. The Ya es Hora campaign recently announced that it surpassed its goal of mobilizing more than one million eligible immigrants to apply for U.S. citizenship in 2007.

A Federal Roadblock on New Citizens: There is one problem -- the federal government isn't keeping up. USCIS recently that those who applied for citizenship after June 1, 2007 may have to wait 16 to 18 months for their applications to be processed.  The average processing time before the surge in applications was six to seven months.  Beyond more than doubling the wait time, the processing backlog means hundreds of thousands of would-be new citizens won't be eligible to vote in November's presidential elections -- and that has many crying foul. Of course, USCIS has denied that the delays are political. 

Under pressure, USCIS has pledged to hire 1,500 new employees to address the workload and hire back about 700 retired government employees. Some offices have extended hours or opened Saturdays to try to catch up.  But USCIS Director Emilio T. Gonzalez said in a House subcommittee hearing on Thursday that this response plan won't reduce processing times to six months until the third quarter of Fiscal 2010-- not in time for the 2008 elections for many applicants.

The Failure of Anti-Immigrant Politics: Still, these backlogs are just delaying some of the inevitable surge in new voting power by immigrant communities in states across the country in coming years, since Latino voters alone are expected to reach 14 million this year, double the number from 2000.  And while a few hot-button anti-immigrant issues get approval in some polls, the underlying reality is that the American people have been steady in their support for legalization of existing undocumented immigrants, with a Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll from the end of November 2007 shows that 63% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans and 57% of independents favor allowing undocumented immigrants who meet certain conditions -- registering, being fingerprinted, paying a fine and learning English -- to become citizens, and a new poll by Arizona State University found that 79% of residents in Arizona, Nevada, Texas and New Mexico agreed that children of undocumented immigrants who graduate from high school and are not involved in crime should become eligible for legal residency.

Given this reality of rising immigrant voting and a public that ultimately wants a humane solution to the immigration issue, promoting smart and humane immigration policies is not only the right thing to do, its's the politically savvy strategy.

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Additional Studies and Resources

Conservative think-tank America's Majority Foundation, in a new study titled Immigration and the Wealth of States, finds that states with high numbers of immigrants have lower rates of unemployment, individual poverty and total crime than other states. In fact, the median per capita income -- the earnings of the 'man in the middle' -- is $3,469 greater in the 19 high immigration jurisdictions than in the 32 other states.  As for crime, in 2006, the total crime rate per 100,000 residents was lower in the high immigration jurisdictions than in the 32 other states.

The National Immigration Law Center (NILC) released several essential fact sheets that are must reads:

The Immigration Policy Center, too, issued a slew of helpful research and fact sheets:

The American Immigration Law Foundation (AILF)'s Thinking Ahead About Our Immigrant Future: New trends and Mutual Benefits in our Aging Society, argues that immigration has not only begun to level off, but immigrants are climbing the socio-economic ladder, and will become increasingly important to the U.S. economy as workers, taxpayers, and homebuyers supporting the aging Baby Boom generation.

The National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (NNIRR) released Over-Raided, Under Siege: U.S. Immigration Laws and Enforcement Destroy the Rights of Immigrants, a new report detailing over 100 stories of human rights abuses against immigrants during 2006 - 2007, including those arising from 206 immigration raids.

Requiring employers to check employee citizenship status through E-Verify, the federal online database, isn't the solution some lawmakers imagine it is. In a July 2007 report , the Government Accountability Office (GAO) estimates the price tag of making E-Verify mandatory (and thereby substantially increasing the number of employers using it) would be $70 million annually for program management plus an additional $300 to $400 million annually for compliance activities and staff. All that money and the GAO warns that the system can't even fully address fraud issues - for example,  when employees present borrowed or stolen genuine documents or when employers try to subvert the system by entering the same identity information to authorize multiple workers.

Originally published in Bender's Immigration Bulletin in 2005, we thought it important to dust off a report by West Point law professor Margaret Stock's report on Driver Licenses and National Security . In that report Stock thoroughly expounds on why the denial of licenses to undocumented immigrants is a policy prescription that hampers law enforcement far more than it enhances it. 

For more information on the myriad of state immigration legislation passed in 2007, see:

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