Why 2013 Was the Year of Positive State Immigration Measures

shutterstock_101684371States took the lead on immigration reform in 2013, and compared to previous years, the majority  were positive measures to help integrate and improve the day-to-day lives of immigrants in their respective states. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures’ (NCSL) 2013 Immigration Report, 45 states passed 184 immigration-related laws in 2013 and adopted 253 resolutions. The number of immigration measures in 2013 is a 64 percent increase over 2012, a year when many states were waiting to see the Supreme Court’s decision on Arizona’s SB 1070. Also in 2012, the Department of Homeland Security began offering temporary legal status to young undocumented immigrants under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy sending a message to states that the federal government was serious about finding ways to normalize the status of the nation’s undocumented population.

Prior to 2013, state immigration bills, like SB 1070, focused on punitive immigration enforcement. Thirty states introduced more than 50 bills about enforcement in 2011, and five states—Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah—enacted laws similar to Arizona’s harsh state law. In 2012, bills similar to SB 1070 were introduced in Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island, and West Virginia, and none were enacted. And last year, only Georgia acted on immigration enforcement by “amending E-Verify requirements, public benefit definitions, and driver’s license requirements.” Excluding Georgia, 2013 saw a dramatic shift as state lawmakers began introducing and enacting positive reforms to allow immigrants to drive legally and access in-state tuition, among other measures. According to NCSL:

  • Driver’s licenses and IDs continued to be a top issue for states, with 35 laws enacted in 21 states, comprising 19 percent of all enacted laws on immigration. California, Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont extended driver’s licenses to certain unauthorized immigrants (a law in the District of Columbia is pending review by Congress).
  • Legislation related to law enforcement and regulation of notary publics and immigration lawyers accounted for 14 percent.
  • Eleven percent of laws were focused on employment, such as verification of work authorization (E-Verify) or eligibility for workers compensation and unemployment insurance.
  • Eleven percent of laws dealt with education, addressing immigration and residency requirements for higher education. Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon extended in-state tuition benefits to unauthorized immigrant students.
  • Eight percent of laws related to health, such as eligibility criteria for Medicaid or SCHIP, language access, or licensing relating to health professionals.

So far in 2014, state legislators are introducing bills that piggy-back on the positive reforms enacted during the 2013 legislative sessions. For example, Maryland Del. Ana Sol Gutierrez has introduced the Maryland Law Enforcement Trust Act, which would limit when local law enforcement officers detained immigrants at the request of federal immigration agents. The Maryland bill follows in the footsteps of California, Connecticut, and Colorado, which enacted similar laws to restrict immigration detainers. And lawmakers in Virginia are again considering a measure to allow undocumented residents to pay in-state tuition rates at state colleges and universities.

There is no doubt the tide is turning in the states. The instinct to be harsh on immigrants seems to be fading at the state level, while initiatives that integrate and capitalize on immigration are becoming more the norm. The new report from NCSL provides a terrific overview of just how far the states came in 2013.

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