It’s not just Congress that’s getting back to work.  State legislators are also returning to state capitals for another year of lawmaking.  This year immigration is likely to be a prominent issue, just as it has been in the past.

According to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL), the number of immigration-related bills introduced in state legislatures has grown exponentially in recent years as the national debate over immigration reform has heated up.  In 2005, 300 bills were introduced and 38 laws were enacted.  In 2006, activity doubled: 570 bills were introduced and 84 laws were enacted.  In 2007, activity tripled: 1,562 bills were introduced and 240 laws were enacted.  In 2008, 1,305 bills were introduced in 45 states, and 205 laws and resolutions were enacted in 41 states.

State bills have touched on many issues including the issuance of driver’s licenses and other identification cards, in-state tuition rates for undocumented immigrants, employment verification, the use of local police to enforce federal immigration laws, housing, health care, public benefits, and many, many more.

Certainly the vast majority of proposals never become law, and a good percentage of the laws passed have had a positive impact on immigrant communities.  However the harsh anti-immigrant proposals that have passed – and even just the anti-immigrant environment surrounding the proposals – continues to have a harmful impact on immigrant and Latino communities.  In the meantime, state and local laws have not effectively resolved any immigration problems.

Because Congress has failed to pass comprehensive immigration reform, and because the rhetoric surrounding the issue has intensified, states and localities have felt pressure to do something on the immigration issue.  Some state legislators may truly believe that immigration can be controlled and regulated at the state level.  Others feel it necessary to make a strong statement against undocumented immigration for political purposes, even if they know their policies are not a real solution, and even if it doesn’t help them politically.

Finally, others are reiterating that immigration reform can only be done by Congress in Washington, DC.  An editorial in a NJ paper states,

The answer to the immigration problem isn’t tougher or more lenient state laws. The answer rests with the president and Congress, which have to approve comprehensive immigration reform, including tighter border security and at least allow immigrants to come and work here legally.

Many of us begin this New Year filled with hope and optimism about the possibility of enacting fair and practical immigration policies in Congress.  It’s important to keep in mind the state and local level–where harsh laws threaten to further disrupt communities.  Of course, in addition to hope and optimism, significant action will be needed to prevent harmful policies and to pass meaningful immigration reform in Washington, DC.