Using Smart State Policy to Challenge the Anti-Immigrant Movement

The key to challenging anti-immigrant movements in the states is to respond with legislation that puts those promoting anti-immigrant policies on the defensive. Their goal is to pit African-American voters against Latinos, legal immigrants against undocumented immigrants, and native-born workers against undocumented workers. So progressive leaders need to promote policies that unite people across those divides, while highlighting that those leading the anti-immigrant charge are actually against the interests of working families of all races and immigrant status.

Anti-immigrant politics are focusing largely on five main messages:

Progressives should highlight not only the facts that refute these arguments, but also identify policies that undercut the political alliances anti-immigrant forces are trying to build around these myths. In this document, we highlight five sets of policies that can directly challenge those right-wing views on immigrant and build alternative political coalitions:

Each of these sets of policies emphasize why better inclusion of immigrants in our communities, not sanctions, are the best approach.  The key for progressives is to use legislative campaigns to actively focus public debate on areas where public attitudes towards immigrants are most positive and to direct frustrations over the economy at the corporate interests who are most responsible for stagnating family incomes.

Different policies will no doubt be promoted in different states.  In a number of states where heavy immigration in the modern era is a relatively new phenomena, political leaders are facing more fear among the public and may have to be more strategic in the policies they promote.   In such states, a heavier focus on issues like wage enforcement policies may be the best options to create the greatest unity among progressive constituencies.  In other states where long-term immigrant communities are politically mobilized in broader local alliances, passing more proactive immigrant policies can help change the national narrative and emphasize the strong pro-immigrant constituencies across the nation.

To read this document online with clickable links to resources, go to:

General Resources for State Immigration Policies

The National Immigration Law Center has a list of suggested pro-active measures in its Pro-Immigrant Measures Available to State or Local Governments: A Quick Menu of Affirmative Ideas that contributed to producing this document.  The following additional documents and groups have many resources that provide research and other documents to assist state advocates in promoting good state immigration policies. 

Wage Law Enforcement as Immigration Policy

While many advocates of "fighting illegal immigration" claim to be doing so in the name of helping low-income workers, it is remarkable that almost none of them are addressing the pervasive theft of low-income worker wages by employers violating wage laws.  

Advocates and progressive state leaders need to emphasize legislation that highlight a few key points:

In fact, cracking down on sweatshops and wage violators would be one of the most effective deterrents to employers recruiting undocumented immigrants. If all employers have to pay a decent wage, the attraction of hiring undocumented immigrants would diminish tremendously. Since going after employers who violate wage laws will politically unite all workers, immigrant and native alike, cracking down on those abusive employers will actually strengthen the progressive political base. 

Where anti-immigrant politicians propose workplace sanctions against immigrants, progressives should be proposing amendments that highlight the broader illegality of broken wage and safety laws that undermine workplace standards for all Americans. If anti-immigrant politicians resist such laws, it will just emphasize that their concern for wage losses by low-income workers is empty and is just a smokescreen for hatred and nativism.  And if every immigration bill is tied to proposals to tighten enforcement of wage and employment laws, many in the business lobby will break their current alliances with anti-immigrant politicians.  

Core wage enforcement legislation should include:

Increase Penalties for Wage Law Violations

In practice, the punishment for violating wage laws and getting caught is usually at worst just paying what is owed or maybe a small fine on top of that, but some states have created policies to significantly increase the penalties for violating those laws.

Enforce Wage Laws Against Employers Using Immigrant Workers

In the words of New York's highest court, applying state wage laws fully against employers of undocumented workers is necessary since weak employment rights for undocumented workers makes "it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens [and] would actually increase employment levels of undocumented aliens, not decrease it."

States like California and New York have established clearly that their laws fully protect undocumented immigrants against retaliation when they bring wage claims against employers. 

For example:

To assure that workers understand their rights at work, Iowa and Nebraska have laws requiring translators on the job where more than 10% of the workforce is non-English-speaking. See Iowa Code section 91E.2.

Fight Misclassification of Workers as Independent Contractors

States are also increasingly targeting the employer tactic of misclassifying employees as "independent contractors," which excludes workers from minimum wage, prevailing wage, overtime, health and safety, and right to organize protections. A February report by Cornell University researchers estimated, for example, that 704,000 of the seven million private-sector workers in New York state were misclassified as independent contractors, costing the state $175 million in unemployment insurance taxes each year and undermining those workers' rights.

Because of these problems, cracking down on misclassification of independent contractors is becoming a priority for many states:

See also:

Expand Coordination and Funding by Enforcement Agencies

Whatever the penalties and the law, one key to enforcement is making sure agencies are well-funded and creatively coordinate their work for maximum effectiveness.

Strengthen Legal Services for Low-Wage Workers

A number of states are increasing funding for legal services, often a critical ally for low-wage workers seeking to enforce their rights. 

One key tool recently has been requiring banks to pay a higher interest rate on funds deposited in special accounts that lawyers use to temporarily hold money deposited by clients, so-called Interest on Lawyer Account Funds (IOLA).  Florida --the first state back in 1981 to use interest on lawyer accounts to fund legal services -- was also the first state in 2004 to require banks to offer competitive interest rates on those accounts, increasing revenue from that source from $22.7 million in fiscal year 2004-05 up to $67.3 million by the following year.  New York and other states have since joined Florida with similar programs. 

See also:

Since the federal Legal Services Corporation bars funding for many immigrant workers, some states are working to provide funding for immigrant workers denied fair treatment.  One model is New York's proposed A2289, which would provide legal services for immigration and immigrant worker matters excluded from federally-funded legals services. The program and services would be available to all immigrants including migrant farm workers and immigrant day laborers, regardless of immigration status.

Encourage Private Action Against Wage Law Violators

To supplement often under-funded public enforcement and legal services agencies, states can also encourage unions and other workers advocates to help bring legal actions against wage law violators.

Prevent Discrimination Based on National Origin

Since government crackdowns against undocumented immigrants will likely lead to a more general backlash against all latino and immigrant workers, states can take actions to protect their residents against unfair discrimination.

Illinois's recently enacted HB 1744 prohibits employers from enrolling in any Employment Eligibility Verification System (E-Verify), because of the poor quality of its databases.  The bar on using E-Verify will continue until the Social Security Administration and Department of Homeland Security databases are able to make a determination on 99% of the tentative nonconfirmation notices issued to employers within 3 days, unless otherwise required by federal law. See also:

To directly deal with discrimination against legal immigrant workers, New York's proposed A4603 would amend the state executive law and the civil rights law to clearly outlaw discrimination because of alien status.

Make it a Crime to Coerce Labor based on Worker's Immigration Status

States are increasingly protecting the victims of human trafficking and punishing employers and others who coerce immigrants to perform labor under threat. 

Stop Government Purchases from Domestic and Overseas Sweatshops

While states cannot change the bad trade policy that has undermined the economy of Mexico and other countries where immigrants are leaving for the U.S., states do have the power through their own purchasing decisions to help end the global sweatshops that drive undocumented immigration. California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, along with sixty cities, counties and school districts, have changed their procurement policies to ban government purchases from contractors violating internationally recognized labor rights.

See also:

General Resources: Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy

Research Studies on Enforcing Wage Laws

Immigrant Integration and Naturalization

While anti-immigrant forces raise fears that recent immigrants resist integration into American society, progressives need to emphasize that all available evidence shows that most are eager to become full members of our communities if given a chance.  Studies by research groups like RAND have shown that latino immigrants, for example, are assimilating into the economy at the same rate as earlier waves of European immigrants.

Politically, progressives can promote legislation that helps all immigrants better integrate, which will unite the interests of legal and undocumented immigrants along with the members of their communities who are already voting citizens.   Especially if anti-immigrant politicians oppose policies that help legal immigrants, it will emphasize to the voting parts of those communities that all the rhetoric about the problem being "illegal" immigration is empty and the bigotry is aimed at the whole ethnic community.

Illinois has created the most comprehensive "New Americans Policy" involving business, religious and community leaders to expand English language programs, welcome centers, jobs programs and document translation programs aimed at new immigrants, but a number of states have promoted a range of legislation to better integrate new immigrants.

Core immigration integration and naturalization legislation should include:

Expand Access to Adult English Classes

Despite claims by anti-immigrant groups that new immigrants don't want to learn English, all evidence shows that there are millions of immigrants literally begging to learn English, only to find insufficient classrooms teaching in their communities.  Many business leaders recognize that problem and want better language training programs, diverging sharply from anti-immigrant groups wanting to deny such help.

A number of states have proposed directed funding to help new immigrants learn English and integrate more easily into their communities:

See also:


Create Government Offices to Assist the Naturalization Process for Aspiring Citizens

By promoting legislation to help legal immigrants get citizenship, state leaders can focus the debate on the positive feelings voters have about new Americans becoming integrated members of our nation.  States and local governments can take action to assist naturalization -- from improving registration procedures at driver licensing offices and other government offices to assisting in the naturalization process.  In California, Santa Clara County early on developed an Immigrant Relations and Integration Services (IRIS) to support immigrant integration programs in the county, serving as one of the inspirations for Illinois' Office of New Americans, which is a leader among the 11 states that have offices to tailor services to immigrants and help with naturalization. Massachusetts operates an Office for Refugees and Immigrants that also assists in citizenship efforts.

States can create government offices or fund organizations to assist immigrants to successfully complete the process of obtaining U.S. citizenship through naturalization.  A few recent proposals include:

States can also enact refundable tax credits for naturalization expenses :

States can also improve government communication and coordination over programs promoting immigrant integration:

See also:

Provide In-State Tuition and Scholarships for All State Residents

One key to integrating the children of new immigrants into our communities is making sure they can get a college education.  Nebraska in 2006 joined nine other states that have passed laws to provide the in-state tuition rate to undocumented immigrants who attend state colleges and universities. This year, the Connecticut legislature voted to do so as well, although unfortunately the Governor in that states vetoed the bill. States across the country are promoting such in-state tuition or DREAM Acts: Arizona's HCR 2029, Arkansas's SB 981, Connecticut's HB 5329/HB 5656, Idaho's HB 220 , Minnesota's HF 722/ SF 653, New Jersey's A4032, North Carolina's H1183, Rhode Island's HB 5308, Iowa's HF 470/ SF 267

See also:

States can also ensure access to state or locally funded financial aid and scholarships, regardless of immigration status:

Protect Immigrants from Private Discrimination

To prevent local discrimination against immigrants, legislation should add immigration and citizenship status to the grounds of prohibited discrimination under fair housing laws and/or prohibit cities, counties, and landlords from making inquiries into immigration status.

Prevent Abuses Committed by “Notarios” and Others Hurting Immigrants Through Fraud

A number of states are taking action to stop the abuses committed by “notarios” and others who harm community members by engaging in fraudulent and unauthorized practice of law.

Other General Resources on Immigrant Integration Policies

Immigrants and Public Benefits

Many of the attacks on immigrants focus on the idea that undocumented immigrants use more benefits than they pay in taxes.  Advocates first need to highlight the multiple studies that have shown that even when you total up the limited services for which they do qualify -- public school education and emergency medical care for example -- undocumented immigrants pay significantly more in state taxes than states spend on those benefits. The Texas State Controller, for example, estimated that undocumented immigrants added over $17 billion to the state economy and paid over $400 million more in taxes than they received in benefits from the state.

Progressives need to emphasize three key points beyond educating the population:

State leaders need to both document the myths promoted by anti-immigrant forces, but also promote policies that emphasize the ways investing in public services reflects our common values and the long-run economic benefits from such investments.

Core immigrants and public benefits legislation should include:

Commission Studies Showing Taxes Paid and Economic Contributions by Immigrants, Both Legal and Undocumented:

To bring to light the real facts about the costs and real benefits of immigration, a number of states are proposing commission studies on economic role and contributions of immigrants, including workforce participation, business or jobs generated, revitalization of neighborhoods, and taxes paid. 

Such official studies will just reinforce the message of other reports from California, Texas, Florida, New Mexico, Washington DC, Long Island, NY, and Arizona that new immigrants both pay taxes and contribute significantly to our state economies.  See also:

Measure Costs of Burdensome ID Rules for Receiving Benefits

While the justification for passing these anti-immigrant laws was to save taxpayer money, follow-up studies have shown little evidence of any savings -- hardly surprising since there was little evidence beforehand that undocumented immigrants were receiving many benefits. ID requirements are usually so extreme that many legal citizens are turned away. For example, Colorado passed a law that prevented state agencies from even accepting a U.S. passport as documentation to obtain a driver's license, leading to the irony that one of the state's main proponents of the bill saw his daughter rejected for a license. The sad result, as the National Immigration Law Center notes, is that "U.S. citizens are less likely than noncitizens to have the documents required by the new verification laws." (p.7)  While the law was amended to allow passports and a few other documents, the law has still inflicted burdens, both financial and personal on citizens of the state. In fact, one study in Colorado found that the law there was costing the state an additional $2 million in increased administrative costs without any identifiable savings.  States should promote similar studies in their states. 

But if such ID rules save the taxpayers little money, the impact on legal residents and citizens can be severe. This was highlighted when the federal government imposed new identification requirements for new applicants for Medicaid. The result? Initial estimates were that 1.2 to 2.3 million citizens lacked the documents required by the new rules and were in danger of losing coverage. Follow-up studies by both the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Medicaid rolls declined in 44 states after Congress imposed the new requirements -- and most of those losing coverage were legal residents eligible for coverage but unable to produce the necessary documents. For other social programs covered by the states with the new anti-immigrant laws, confusion and fear led people to lose other benefits.   States should commission their own studies to show the impact of benefit ID laws in hurting legal residents of their states.

See also:

Protect Privacy of Users of Public Benefit Programs:

State leaders can highlight the lost privacy that anti-immigrant witchhunts engender by pursuing policies and resolutions that limit questioning and recording of immigration status by city and state agencies, except where required by federal law. 

Make Services Available to Victims of Human Trafficking

One area where the public has great sympathy for extending public benefits is to immigrant victims of trafficking, domestic violence, and other serious crimes. 

Provide Health Care for Immigrant Communities:

Many states are providing health care to immigrants, both legal and undocumented, recognizing that long-term investments in education and health care will pay off with a more skilled and healthy workforce in the future.  More than half of the states spend their own funds to provide services to at least some immigrants ineligible for federal services. 

See also:

Pass Resolutions Asking Federal Government to Provide Funding for Local Immigrant Services

Since the federal government collects many taxes from undocumented immigrants, including social security taxes for which the federal government has to pay no benefits, a number of programs have been designed to funnel those revenues back to the states.   In fact, federal policies continue to deny help even for legal immigrants who clearly pay taxes.  A clear example is the failure to include funding for legal immigrant children in the recent SCHIP bill approved by Congress.  Programs like the State Criminal Alien Assistance Program (SCAAP) were also designed to channel some of those increased tax revenues to states that are particularly impacted by new immigrants to help them deal with increased costs that local tax revenues might not fully cover, yet the Bush administration and others have argued for cutting its funding.

Recognizing that the federal government collects taxes from immigrant workers without providing funds even for federally-mandated health care services, proposed California SJRX1 asks the Congress and President of the United States to enact legislation that would provide full reimbursement for the costs of providing federally mandated health care services to anyone, regardless of immigration status.

Voting Reform versus "Voter ID" Attacks

The charge that undocumented immigrants voting is a major problem is, unfortunately, a place where anti-immigrant forces are mobilizing around a big lie, stoking hate on pure fiction.  

The cynical goals of voter identification laws pushed by the right-wing is highlighted by a basic fact -- there is zero evidence that undocumented immigrants are illegally voting. At its "Truth about Fraud" website, for example, the Brennan Center for Justice has highlighted that fraud is a red herring used by the right-wing to disenfrachise legal voters through abusive identification rules.  This is emphasized by the national scandal of the Bush Administration firing U.S. Attorneys, in part because some of those appointees refused to go along with partisan pressure to generate non-existent cases of voter fraud. Five years of investigations revealed no real evidence of voter fraud by an administration as determined to find non-existent voter fraud as non-existent WMDs in Iraq.

Progressive leaders should be alarmed, though, that while little fraud has been stopped, the result in states that have implemented voter ID rules has been a sharp drop in voting by legally eligible voters, the real goal of right-wing campaigners promoting the myth of undocumented immigrants voting. A report prepared for the federal Election Assistance Commission found that in states with voter ID requirements, blacks were 5.7% less likely to vote and Hispanics appeared to be 10% less likely to vote under those requirements.

Such voter ID laws need to be defeated, but the other part of progressive mobilization should be demanding that voting be made easier for people who do overcome these new barriers to voting.  Core voting reform legislation should include:   

Hold Hearings or Create Commissions to Expose the Lack of Immigrant Voter Fraud

State leaders need to expose the fraud in anti-immigrant myths about non-citizens voting in large numbers and use such hearings or commissions to refocus debate on the real ways voters are disenfranchised by burdensome election rules and tactics used to suppress the vote.

See also:

Pass Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Acts

Too often, we see have seen campaigns to intimidate voters based on their race or use other tactics to suppress the vote of legal voters.  States need Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Acts to create strong penalties for groups that suppress voter turnout through deception and intimidation.   If anti-immigrant forces are going to raise fraud as a justification for voter ID bills, then progressives should demand through proactive legislation and amendments attached to their bills that all forms of fraud, deception and intimidation be removed at the ballot box.

See also:

Pass Laws to Make Voting Easier Once People do Manage to Register to Vote

In states moving to create greater hurdles to registration and voting are enacted, progressives need to demand simplification of the process once people produce the necessary ID. 

See also:

Immigrant Outreach as Public Safety and Anti-Terror Policy

While anti-immigration forces seek to paint immigrants as a dangerous criminal force, the facts show that immigrants commit fewer crimes than the general population. But more importantly, most law enforcement groups recognize that it becomes harder to protect victims of crime, particularly immigrants themselves, when millions of people living in our communities are fearful of talking to the police when they witness a crime or are a victim of one. As a report endorsed by the Major Cities Chiefs Association, representing the police departments of New York City, Los Angeles, Houston and city departments serving over fifty million residents outlined:

Immigration enforcement by local police would likely negatively effect and undermine the level of trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities. If the undocumented immigrant's primary concern is that they will be deported or subjected to an immigration status investigation, then they will not come forward and provide needed assistance and cooperation...Such a divide between the local police and immigrant groups would result in increased crime against immigrants and in the broader community, create a class of silent victims and eliminate the potential for assistance from immigrants in solving crimes or preventing future terroristic acts.

Progressive leaders can frame reasonable treatment of immigrant communities as critical to promoting public safety.

Core immigrant outreach for public safety and anti-terror policy legislation should include:

Community Policing in Immigrant Communities

The broadest message by progressives must be that we don't improve public safety by making immigrants afraid to cooperate with the police or anti-terror authorities. States should condemn turning every police officier or, even worse, every social worker into a potential immigration enforcement agent, because it undermines community policing and other known effective law enforcement approaches. 

Rhode Island HB 5237 and New Hampshire HB 404 would prohibit the use of state and local law enforcement agencies for the purpose of detecting or apprehending persons whose only violation of law is that they are persons of foreign citizenship who are in violation of federal immigration laws.       

See also:

Protect Immigrant Victims and Witnesses to Crimes, Particularly of Domestic Violence

Progressive leaders can ally with both law enforcement and victims' rights groups by promoting policies that protect immigrant victims of crime when they contact the police and by encouraging community policing efforts in immigrant communities.  

To encourage victims and witnesses of crime, particularly those suffering from domestic violence, to come forward, state need clear policies to limit police inquiry into their immigration status. Rhode Island HB 5237 and SB 735 are both designed to promote immigrant assistance in crime fighting by protecting the identity of such immigrant victims and witnesses of crime.

See also:      

Issue Licenses and Identification

State leaders need to emphasize that top law enforcement officials are on record supporting such drivers license identification programs as a way to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows and better track state residents for law enforcement purposes. Top officials who have publicly supported these measures include former New York police chief William Bratton, who now heads Los Angeles' police force, and anti-terror officials  like Richard A. Clark, the counter-terrorism czar for Presidents Clinton and Bush. Eight states do not require proof of legal status to obtain a driver license: Hawaii, Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, and Washington, with none of them suffering ill effects to public safety.

There are a number of models for removing bars to undocumented immigrants receiving licenses:

Many Americans are concerned about lost privacy in all aspects of our lives, so another approach is to combine licensing laws for immigrants with a more general policy denying the DMV the right to inquire about a wide range of personal information, from legal status to gender orientation, as long as the person can produce some reasonable identification. 

See also:

Prevent Racial Profiling

Hysteria over immigrants encourages racial profiling by law enforcement, so proposals like Texas HB 2428 / SB 150 would prohibit law enforcement profiling based on a person's immigration or nationality status.       

Condemn Private Vigilantism

A number of proposed bills condemn vigilante or hate activity targeting immigrants:

General Public Safety Resources