With federal immigration bills stalled on Capitol Hill, many states are charging ahead on their own to open doors to unauthorized immigrants, from allowing them to pay in-state tuition at state colleges and universities, to giving them driver’s licenses and providing them with welfare or Medicaid benefits.
Sixteen states now offer in-state tuition rates to students who are in the country illegally and at least four other states (Hawaii, Michigan, Oklahoma and Rhode Island) seem to be moving in that direction, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL). Unauthorized immigrants can now get driver’s licenses in 11 states and the District of Columbia. Just five years ago, no state issued the licenses.
Other states are pursuing smaller, yet still significant, measures to make life easier for unauthorized immigrants and draw them out of the shadows. Some of the proposals would allow them to vote in state elections and even run for office, while others are looking to smooth immigration-related problems in foster care programs, for example.
MOVING AWAY FROM ENFORCEMENT
It’s all part of a trend of states moving away from the enforcement-focused immigration laws that took hold after the 2010 elections, most notably in Arizona, which pushed local law enforcement to check the status of people suspected of being in the country illegally. Courts have largely blocked enforcement of the Arizona law.
One measure of the momentum is that some Republicans are getting on board. Florida Gov. Rick Scott, who took a hard line on illegal immigration during his campaign in 2010, signed a bill this year to offer unauthorized students in-state tuition. Last year, Nevada’s Republican Gov. Brian Sandoval signed a driver’s license law, which cleared the Democratic-controlled legislature.
“It seems like it’s becoming more widely accepted across political lines that it makes sense to invest in immigrants who live and work in our communities,” said Tanya Broder of the National Immigration Law Center, an immigrant advocacy group.
Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat who co-chairs the NCSL immigration task force, said states are filling the vacuum left by Congress.
INFLUX OF MINORS WORRISOME
“Without federal action states are really focusing in on what is the specific nature of immigration or immigrant integration policy that resonates or that is a priority at home,” she said. Santos is worried, however, that the recent influx of Central American children on the U.S.-Mexico border could reverse the trend. “It does make me concerned that we may see a resurgence of border security proposals,” she said.
Few states have gone as far as Democratic-dominated California in aiding unauthorized immigrants. For example, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed a law directing child welfare courts and agency workers not to let a potential guardian’s citizenship status stand in the way of placing a child in the guardian’s care.
Previously, courts or social workers across California handled the issue inconsistently, sometimes placing children with noncitizen guardians, other times seeing immigration status as a roadblock, said Phil Ladew, legal director at the California CASA Association, whose members serve as court-appointed advocates for children in the foster care system.
“When you do that, and you have a system that’s overburdened, time passes and after a year the child is still in foster care, then you just threw a grenade into the entire family,” Ladew said. “This is getting back to that notion that in the first instance you need to keep the child with that family.”
In 2012, Brown signed another measure designed to keep immigrant families together. Under the Immigrant Family Reunification Act, immigrant parents who have been placed in immigration custody or deported now have an additional six months to meet the requirements of the courts for family reunification. The bill also allows children who cannot be reunited with their parents to be placed under custody of a relative without taking into consideration the relative’s legal status.
For years, many California cities have been “sanctuary cities,” offering assistance and protection to undocumented immigrants. And California is one of four states (New Mexico, Texas and Washington are the others) to offer state financial aid to unauthorized immigrants, in stark contrast to those states where even offering discounted in-state tuition rates paid by all other residents remains a political nonstarter.
New York state Sen. Gustavo Rivera, a Democrat from the Bronx, last month introduced what might be the most sweeping state-based immigration measure in the country. Under the New York is Home Act, New York could declare both documented and undocumented immigrants citizens of the state, regardless of federal immigration status.
The measure would make unauthorized immigrants eligible to participate in most aspects of civic life.