Progressive Immigration Measures Pick Up Steam at the State Level


By SUMAN RAGHUNATHAN, PROGRESSIVE STATES NETWORK

As the list of state business leaders, law enforcement, and conservative lawmakers who realize that anti-immigrant efforts are costly, misguided, and destructive to state economies continues to grow, a number of state elected officials are putting their weight behind progressive, solutions-based approaches to immigration policy. A group of progressive state elected officials affiliated with Progressive States Network—State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy, with members in 34 states and counting—have been at the forefront of advancing pragmatic and progressive state approaches to immigration which expand opportunities for all residents, both immigrant and native-born, while strengthening communities and state economies.

Numerous tuition equity bills have already been introduced in state legislatures this session, echoing broad popular support for efforts to integrate undocumented young people into communities and local institutions, despite the recent failure of the DREAM Act in Congress. The DREAM Act, a bipartisan effort to grant legal status and the option to eventually apply for citizenship to undocumented young people, is now being partially resurrected via tuition equity bills gaining momentum in Connecticut; Colorado; Maryland; Massachusetts; Nevada; and Oregon, where progressive state legislators, working closely with immigrant rights and student organizations, introduced a bill (HB 2939) with broad student and community support today.

Colorado, whose State Legislature nearly enacted a tuition equity bill in 2009, now appears to be close to passing a proposal introduced in the Senate by newly-elected Senator Angela Giron (D) (alongside companion legislation in the House introduced by Representative Joe Miklosi (D), a longtime supporter of tuition equity). In fact, some Senators state legislators are now considering changing their 2009 votes to pass the bill. According to The Denver Post:

[…] Democrats this time may have 18 votes—the number needed to pass a bill in the Senate. The 2009 measure failed on a 16-18 vote, and Sen. Morgan Carroll, D-Aurora, was one of five Democrats who voted against it.

Carroll now says she’s rethinking her position. She said she opposed the 2009 bill partly because it did not appear to comply with federal laws governing benefits to illegal immigrants. But the legislation this year, Senate Bill 126, has been written in a way that may conform with federal law, Carroll said.

This shift is probably at least partly due to the increasing power of the state’s Latino electorate, which granted close victories to Senate and Gubernatorial candidates who voiced their opposition to anti-immigrant rhetoric and proposals.

Oregon‘s bill, introduced in the state House by Representatives Michael Dembrow (D) (himself a Community College professor) and Chris Harker (D), makes particular sense for the state, where a full two-thirds of funding for the state university system comes from student tuition fees. Tuition from undocumented college and university students would play a crucial role to infuse the state’s higher education system with important funding—a reality in many other states.

As states confront historic budget deficits, why would responsible state legislators reject a chance to bring tuition dollars from undocumented students into the system? Out-of-state tuition fees, which many states force their undocumented students to pay to attend higher education institutions, can be as much as three times in-state tuition rates—which mean many undocumented immigrants are effectively priced out of a college education.

Some states already understand this financial reality. Ten states have already passed tuition equity laws, including Utah where conservative state legislators reconsidered their efforts last year to repeal their tuition equity law upon learning doing so would deprive the state’s university system of at least $1.5 million in desperately-needed tuition fees.

Also this year, some states are trying to move wage enforcement legislation in an effort to improve wage levels and workplace safety standards for all workers and allow state governments to target employers seeking to cheat workers out of their wages while not paying into state payroll tax systems. Progressive legislators in Nevada and Maine have already introduced bills to get to the heart of efforts to exploit immigrant workers while leveling the playing field for all members of the labor force. This is a win-win solution for states who want to recoup tax revenue while doing right by their workers.

Bottom line: for legislators who want to develop concrete, solutions-based approaches to state immigration policy, pro-immigrant legislation is the smart option—and also the one that makes the most political sense.

Photo by joinash.

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