The path toward commonsense federal immigration solutions seems to be continuing the cyclical and frustrating pattern of two steps forward, one step back. As soon as a measure is introduced—be it visa recapture, reducing the H-1B backlog, or a long overdue solution for Dreamers and TPS holders—it gets clawed back. In the absence of meaningful action in Congress, there is plenty of movement at the state level. Sometimes this movement is for the better; but often for the worse.

In one of the most egregious cases of the latter, the Florida legislature passed Senate Bill 1808 on March 9. The bill expands upon Senate Bill 168, a controversial anti-sanctuary cities bill passed three years ago.  The new bill would force law enforcement agencies that operate county detention centers to sign “287(g)” agreements with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It would also punish transportation companies that transport migrant children to shelters in the state, among other provisions.

SB 1808 faced strong opposition from a wide variety of groups. Law enforcement, the business community, civil liberties groups, as well as Catholic leadership and others in the faith community have all spoken out against it.

The Florida bill was a top priority for Governor Ron DeSantis. It is blatantly unconstitutional and bound to be challenged in court. SB 1808—which shares many of the legal and constitutional concerns from the 2019 bill that was challenged in federal court—would defy the court’s ruling that parts of the law were unconstitutional and would result in illegal detentions, unlawful traffic stops, and racial and ethnic profiling. If signed by Governor DeSantis, it will:

  • Expand SB 168’s restriction on “sanctuary policies” to include state, city, and county-level policies that prohibit or limit local law enforcement from sharing the immigration status of someone in custody with state agencies.
  • Compel all law enforcement agencies operating county detention centers to enter into a 287(g) agreement with ICE. Law enforcement must enter the agreement regardless of local policies or the cost associated with deputizing local law enforcement to carry out federal enforcement priorities.
  • Prohibit all state and local government agencies from contracting with transportation companies (including airlines, bus, and train companies, etc.) that knowingly transport “unauthorized aliens” into Florida. This provision is designed to block the Office of Refugee Resettlement from transferring unaccompanied children to shelters in Florida, some of which have been operating for nearly two decades.

State action on immigration goes beyond trying to tackle federal enforcement on their own. During an international refugee crisis, legislators in Tennessee have introduced bills that would make it even more difficult to welcome those escaping war and persecution. One bill would place an unnecessary burden on the state, requiring reporting on refugees accessing services for which they are eligible. Another would withhold state funding from public schools based on students’ immigration status.

But other states are taking the opposite approach. They are responding to inaction at the federal level by working to ensure every resident is welcome and can thrive. So far this year:

  • States like Colorado have moved to make it easier for internationally-trained healthcare professionals to practice in the state.
  • Legislators in Virginia have worked to address dire teacher shortages by recognizing the credentials of teachers who received their license to teach outside of the United States.
  • Oregon passed a bill that will guarantee universal legal representation for immigrants facing deportation who can’t afford a lawyer.
  • Washington passed a bill to ensure that all working residents with a valid tax identification number have access to the state’s Working Families Tax Credit, regardless of immigration status.
  • Utah passed legislation that makes it easier for our Afghan neighbors to get a driver’s license, alleviating one major hurdle for new arrivals.

Many states have also recognized the value of being responsive and accessible to all people who call them home. The number of states with an office dedicated to immigrant and refugee social and economic inclusion has increased dramatically, more than doubling since 2019.

Until Congress takes meaningful action to modernize our outdated immigration system and recognize the myriad contributions of our vibrant immigrant and refugee communities, states will continue to do what they’ve done for more than a decade: move forward where they can, with or without Washington.

Photo by Gage Skidmore