States Work To Improve Immigration Policies As Senate Immigration Bill Debate Begins

4722122261_cbdf1ffbd7_zState legislatures are mostly winding down their 2013 legislative sessions after several states made huge strides on immigration reform. While Congress continues to debate how to overhaul the nation’s immigration system, several states have moved to make qualified undocumented immigrants eligible for in-state tuition rates and to allow undocumented immigrants to drive legally. These and other reforms at the state and local level are helpful changes to complement the national debate.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D) signed a bill Wednesday that allows undocumented immigrants to apply for driver’s licenses. Nevada Gov. Brian Sandoval (R), the state’s first Latino governor, signed a similar bill into law late last month and called it a “historic day.” And Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber (D) signed his state’s driver’s license bill into law on May 1 at an immigration rally. In addition to these three states, New Mexico, Illinois and Washington already have this policy. While all but two states allow undocumented immigrants who qualify for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) to qualify for driver’s licenses, Nebraska has refused to allow it. In response, a lawsuit was filed this week against Nebraska over the state’s refusal to let a 24-year-old DACA recipient apply for a license. And on Tuesday, Gov. Rick Scott (R) vetoed a bill to allow young undocumented immigrants who are approved for DACA to seek driver’s licenses, despite the fact that the bill overwhelmingly passed the Republican-controlled legislature. And Scott’s veto is even more of an outlier because Florida law already allows non-citizens with federal work permits, which DACA recipients are granted, to apply for licenses.

Beyond the measures that aim to help improve immigrants’ lives in the U.S., Connecticut has approved legislation to bar police from detaining someone solely for immigration issues. Known as the TRUST Act, the bill passed unanimously in both chambers last month. The measure would allow local governments to detain an individual at the request of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) only if the person has a serious or violent felony conviction. Through the bill, it would limit the state’s involvement with Secure Communities, a federal program that requires state and local officials to share fingerprints of those booked in local jails with immigration officials. “If we can pass enough of these, it would force the federal government’s hand to say ‘we can’t depend on the states to do our job,’” Connecticut State Rep. Gary Holder-Winfield (D), who sponsored the bill, said in April.

The Connecticut bill, which passed with little debate, mirrors the California TRUST Act. Since 2011, a version of the bill has passed the California Assembly, and both chambers approved the bill last year before Gov. Jerry Brown (D) vetoed it. But in his veto statement, Brown said the “significant flaws in this bill can be fixed,” and state lawmakers are working on a state TRUST Act again this year. In May, the state Assembly passed this year’s version, and it is now pending in the state Senate. The bill is similar to a directive from state Attorney General Kamala Harris that advised agencies that “immigration detainers are not compulsory” and “are merely requests enforceable at the discretion of the agency holding the individual arrestee.”

As the data shows, immigrants are a growing force in all 50 states, and some state lawmakers are recognizing this fact.  There is much to be done at the federal level to improve U.S. immigration policy as a whole, but as the Senate begins debate on S. 744 and a group of House members work on their own immigration reform bill, state efforts are making needed reforms to help aspiring citizens already living in the U.S.

Photo of Governor Hickenlooper, Courtesy of Jeffrey Beall.

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