Opinion

States, Localities Key to Immigration Policy

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Immigration is again front and center in the domestic political debate. Congress may or may not pass legislation to reform the nation’s immigration system, but in the meantime President Barack Obama has taken executive action to make as many as 5 million unauthorized immigrants eligible to avoid  deportation. What happens next is open for debate, but however Washington acts, state and local governments will have important roles to play because any changes in national immigration policy will inevitably affect them.

And it’s not just the border states that need to pay attention to federal changes in immigration policy. According to the Pew Research Center, about 3.5 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States in 1990, with 80 percent of them in six states: California, Florida, Illinois, New Jersey, New York, and Texas. By 2012, only 60 percent of these immigrants were in those six states, with faster growth in new gateway states, primarily in the South and West. Today, the country’s 11.2 million unauthorized immigrants are spread across 50 states and the District of Columbia. And there are now 32 states in which the unauthorized proportion of their immigrant population is at least 25 percent, with the highest in Arkansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, Idaho and Oklahoma. 

Previous federal reform efforts illustrate how all levels of government interact on immigration policy. In 2012, the Obama administration created the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) process, which allows unauthorized young immigrants to live and work in the United States for a limited period but does not provide them with legal status or a pathway to citizenship. The 600,000 (and counting) people currently in the program are required to meet certain criteria, including proving that they came to the United States as children and have lived in the country for a specified time. As part of his executive action, the President announced an expansion to DACA and a new program for unauthorized immigrant parents of U.S. citizen or permanent resident children.

Although the federal government, which is in charge of admitting immigrants to the country and providing work authorization, administers such programs, many aspects of implementation fall to states, cities, and other entities.

For example, after the DACA program, increased demand for services required New York City to provide $18 million for additional adult education classes and legal services for applicants. A backlog of transcript requests in Los Angeles had school district employees logging hundreds of thousands of dollars in overtime. In response to fraudulent activity and price gauging, California state lawmakers passed a consumer protection law limiting who can charge individuals for DACA services. 

Whether responding to the President’s latest executive action, or further congressional legislation, state and local governments may be called on to contribute in four key ways:

  1. Documentation. State and local governments may be the source of the paperwork applicants need to meet eligibility requirements for new programs, including documents proving they have been in the United States for a defined period and, depending on the program, have met any educational requirements, or have U.S.-born children.
  2. Education. State and local institutions may face increased demand for public education or other specified classes that applicants may need to qualify. 
  3. Protection from fraudulent or predatory providers of immigration legal services. Historically, states have also played a prominent role in protecting immigrants from scams targeting them.
  4. Outreach and public education. States and localities may be called on to inform potential applicants about new programs, including eligibility and application requirements.

While Washington debates action on immigration, federal officials need to recognize that their decisions will have an impact on other levels of government and organizations across the country. Consulting with state and local officials on timelines, required documentation, costs, and other issues is critical.  At the same time, state and local officials need to understand how federal changes will affect them and consider how to respond.

Immigration will remain a complex and emotional issue, but careful planning at all levels of government can make the system work more efficiently. Conversely, without understanding the interplay of the federal government and other jurisdictions, any immigration reform efforts could fall short.  

Adam Hunter directs The Pew Charitable Trusts’ work on immigration and the states. 

This opinion piece was originally published on the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel website December 28, 2014.

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