Amid inaction from the federal government on immigration policy and growing calls for action from localities, some state legislatures are taking a proactive role in welcoming immigrants and refugees. Once again, states are leading the way on immigration policy in the U.S.
Despite being less than a month into the 2024 state legislative cycle, state legislatures have introduced numerous proposals advancing immigrant-inclusive policies, with the American Immigration Council already tracking over 200 immigration-related bills. The policies are varied, ranging from those aiming to remove barriers to occupational licensure to get more high-skilled immigrants into jobs to bills establishing Offices of New Americans to bolster immigrants’ integration and access to essential services and information.
Our recently updated interactive data map, which highlights the economic contributions and demographic impact of immigrants and refugees at the state and local levels, illustrates why states are advancing these policies. Immigrants across the country and skill spectrum are filling critical labor shortages and boosting local economies.
While many of these measures have recently been introduced and not yet signed into law—apart from a New Jersey bill requiring state government entities to provide documents and translation services in at least the seven most common non-English languages—their advancement by representatives from across the political spectrum shows that states want to unlock the full potential of their immigrant and refugee populations.
- Virginia and Wisconsin have introduced legislation that would reduce barriers to professional licensure for international medical graduates by creating provisional licenses for qualified internationally trained physicians, allowing them to fully utilize their education and skill set. Additionally, Virginia’s legislation provides an option to renew that license for two more years if the physician practices in an underserved area, ensuring all communities have access to quality and timely medical care.
- States across the nation continue to grapple with the growing need for healthcare workers to care for our aging population. A fast-moving bill in Indiana aims to address the state’s need for nurses by allowing internationally trained nurses to more easily obtain licensure in the state.
- Other states have explored different approaches to addressing dire workforce shortages by ensuring all residents have quicker pathways to enter jobs that appropriately match their education and skill level. For example, proposed legislation in New York and Maryland would remove requirements for citizenship and lawful presence as a condition for licensure.
States are not only hoping to get internationally trained immigrants working but also investing in the development of talent within their states. By removing barriers to accessing higher education, states are expanding their local talent pool—thereby strengthening the building blocks of their local economies, increasing income and state tax contributions, and providing numerous benefits to their communities.
- Legislation in Hawaii would allow asylees, refugees, and DACA recipients in the U.S. to qualify for in-state tuition under certain conditions.
- A Vermont bill would extend in-state tuition and qualification for state financial aid for residents who qualify for Vermont residency, if not for their immigration status.
States are also pushing legislation to establish Offices of New Americans (ONA). These offices play a crucial role in connecting immigrant and refugee communities with the state government and often focus on workforce development and the statewide coordination of immigrant integration.
- Maine Governor Janet Mills unveiled plans to establish an ONA in the Maine State Government. Under the legislation, the ONA would support immigrants to bolster Maine’s workforce and strengthen English-language acquisition and workforce pathways for immigrants in the state. Mills also proposes that once it is established, the Maine ONA would join the ONA State Network, co-convened by the Council and World Education Services.
States nationwide are considering legislation expanding driver’s license access to all residents, regardless of immigration status. These bills are an important step in making roads safer and allowing all residents to get to work, school, and elsewhere.
- Legislation in Oklahoma would allow residents who pay taxes in the state to access a driver’s license.
- A bill put forth in Indiana creates a driving privilege card for residents who are unable to show proof of legal presence in the U.S.
States are also working to close gaps in healthcare coverage by ensuring that all residents have access to healthcare. In Virginia, proposed legislation would expand state-funded healthcare coverage to children under 19 years of age, regardless of their immigration status. The bill also requires the state to work toward distributing information about this program to individuals with limited English proficiency.
Though we’ll have to wait and see if these bills—and other similar efforts across the country—are signed into law this legislative session, this trend across legislatures demonstrates the growing bipartisan support for immigrant-inclusive legislation.
Unfortunately, some states are running contrary to this trend and fail to recognize the value immigrants and refugees bring to their communities.
- In Wisconsin, proposed legislation aims to discourage the resettlement of refugees in the state. Our research shows that refugees contribute significantly to the state’s economy, meaning this legislation goes against the economic interests of the state.
- A bill in Mississippi would criminalize the transportation of undocumented migrants into the state—a move that undermines immigrant communities’ trust in local law enforcement. The bill is seemingly inspired by Florida’s SB 1718, which contained a similar provision (and is currently being challenged by the Council). Mississippi could also see similar damage to its economy.
The Council will continue to closely monitor state legislation as this cycle develops. Through our research publications showing the positive economic and demographic impact that immigrants and refugees have at all levels of government, we hope states throughout the nation continue to recognize the importance of immigrants and refugees, not only as a component of building local economies but also enhancing local communities.