After long legal battles over punitive, state anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s SB1070 and Alabama’s HB56, state governments learned the limits on what types of immigration policies they can set at the local level. Since then, states have begun moving in a new direction by more generally enacting state immigration laws that seek to protect, integrate and capitalize on the social and economic opportunities immigration brings. Increasingly, states are also adopting resolutions that call on the federal government to take action on immigration reform.

The National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) reviews legislative activity on immigration in the states and recently released their annual review. They found that in the first half of 2015, 46 states and Puerto Rico enacted 153 laws and 238 resolutions related to immigration. This is the highest total number of state immigration laws and resolutions passed in the first half of a year since 2010, and the number of laws passed is up 16 percent from last year.

The state immigration laws and resolutions fall into a variety of categories, including budget and appropriations, education, health, law enforcement, drivers/other licenses, employment, public benefits, human trafficking, and voting.

The highlights include:

  • Both Delaware and Hawaii enacting legislation that provides undocumented immigrants with driving privileges. Also, California established a statewide director of immigrant integration and Minnesota created three ethnic councils: the Minnesota Council on Latino Affairs; Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage; and the Council on Asian-Pacific Minnesotans.
  • NCSL found budget and appropriations as the most popular category, encompassing 23 percent of the legislation passed. The various appropriations provisions authorize funds for refugee services, migrant health, and education, and also for law enforcement.
  • Lawmakers in 14 states enacted 23 laws pertaining to immigration and residency requirements for access to higher education, in-state tuition, or financial assistance. Some laws address enhanced learning for refugees or English learners. Several states also incorporated portions of the naturalization test into their high school civics curricula. On the flip side, Missouri barred institutes of higher education from offering “unlawful” immigrants any tuition rate less than the international rate and also barred scholarship funds to students with undocumented immigration status.
  • 14 percent of the legislation passed is related to health, with many states increasing access to health care for immigrants. California passed a law extending eligibility for Medi-Cal benefits to children under 19 who do not have immigration status and thus do not qualify for the Federal Medicaid Program. Oregon passed a law to require the use of certified or qualified health care interpreters whenever possible.
  • A small percent, about 10 percent, of the state laws relate to law enforcement. Generally, states were focused on the enforcement of immigration laws.
  • Lawmakers in five states and Puerto Rico also enacted seven laws around human trafficking, providing protections to victims and harsh penalties to those caugh trafficking.
  • At least one state also enacted laws regulating notary publics, in order to protect immigrants from notario fraud.

In addition to passing state immigration laws, 27 states and Puerto Rico adopted 238 immigration-related resolutions. Importantly, seven states passed resolutions that encourage the federal government to take action on immigration. In resolution HM 72, New Mexico requests that the President and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation consider alternatives to detaining immigrant families seeking asylum. Similarly, Nevada adopted a resolution urging Congress to enact comprehensive immigration reform.

The amount of legislation passed so far this year highlights states’ ongoing attempts to do what they can to manage immigration policy in the absence of federal action. However, the good news is these days their inclination seems to be towards choosing a productive over punitive approach.

Photo by Nick Aldwin.

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