As we reach the midpoint in state legislative sessions, 2013 is shaping up to be a year where most states are moving in a more positive direction when it comes to immigration policy. Lawmakers from both parties have become more inclined to support pro-immigrant measures, shifting away from the anti-immigrant policies that swept across states in previous years.
In Colorado and Oregon, for example, bills allowing undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities have passed the legislatures in both states and are waiting for their respective governors to sign them. Colorado’s in-state tuition bill passed the state Senate with support from three Republicans – the first time Colorado Republicans backed the bill – and two Oregon Republicans voted for the bill in the state Senate. Earlier this month, Pennsylvania State Sen. Lloyd Smucker (R) introduced an in-state tuition bill in his state. “These are kids we’ve already invested in,” he said when announcing his bill. “They have the opportunity to contribute. They will be here. So why not give them every chance to contribute? I think it’s an economic investment.” Meanwhile, in Arkansas, a legislative panel is expected to weigh in soon about whether undocumented immigrants in the state should be eligible for in-state tuition, and Gov. Mike Beebe (D) said earlier this week that he would support the policy. That is a change from 2005 when Beebe issued a legal opinion as the state’s top attorney that helped defeat a similar proposal.
Since President Obama announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy in June 2012, the vast majority of states have confirmed that young adults who received “deferred action” through DACA will be eligible for driver’s licenses in those states. Just today, Ohio became one of those states when officials with the Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles announced that they will “begin issuing temporary driver licenses to qualified Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) grantees.” And in North Carolina, hundreds of undocumented immigrants who benefited from DACA began to apply for driver’s licenses in the state after state transportation officials backed down from a plan to issue licenses to them with a prominent pink stripe to indicate their immigration status. Beyond allowing young adults who have received deferred action to apply for driver’s licenses, the Maryland state Senate passed a bill to allow undocumented immigrants to apply for and renew licenses. To apply, they would have to show proof of identification and provide two years of state income tax filings to show they are state residents. “This is necessary legislation,” said Sen. Victor Ramirez (D), who sponsored the bill. “It makes our streets safer when drivers are licensed and have car insurance.” Now the state House is considering the bill.
But not all states have completely seen the light. In Kansas, officials are still fighting to repeal a state policy allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities—so far however, with little success. Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who wrote Arizona’s and Alabama’s anti-immigrant laws, is pushing for his state to end the policy. And in the final hours of Georgia’s legislative session, state lawmakers passed a bill to expand the state’s 2011 anti-immigrant law. The new expansions aim to block undocumented immigrants from getting state driver’s licenses, public housing, and retirement benefits, and it would prevent residents from using foreign passports to obtain public benefits unless their passports “include records indicating they are in the country legally.” But Georgia is an outlier in a year where so many lawmakers from both parties have moved to enact policies to help undocumented immigrants living here.
There is still much work to be done to fix our broken immigration system, but state efforts to improve immigration policy are complementary to national efforts to craft a comprehensive immigration plan. President Obama expects an immigration bill to come before the Senate next month, so as congressional leaders continue to debate specifics about an immigration overhaul, state measures permitting immigrants to drive and continue their education are good measures that allow aspiring citizens to move forward with their lives in the meantime.