Pew: State and Local Governments Play Critical Role in Immigration

Pew: State and Local Governments Play Critical Role in Immigration

Report Finds Four Key Areas of Responsibility for States and Localities Should Federal Government Create Legalization Program

WASHINGTON— A report from The Pew Charitable Trusts released today reviews previous federal action on immigration and examines the roles states and localities might have in implementing any new legalization program. Immigration and Legalization: Roles and Responsibilities of States and Localities highlights four key functions for state and local governments: outreach, documentation, education, and protection from fraud.

Pew has no position on whether Congress should pass legislation on immigration, but believes that state and local governments can be prepared to implement a possible federal initiative. It is also critical that the role of states and localities be taken under consideration as Congress considers immigration legislation.

While only the federal government can grant lawful status to immigrants, state and local governments play critical roles in carrying out legalization programs, according to the report. If a broad new legalization program were enacted, states that have historically received the most immigrants, such as California, Florida, Illinois, New York, and Texas -- as well as other states with new and growing immigrant populations, such as Nevada and Georgia -- would be affected.

Pew's analysis underscores that the population of unauthorized immigrants is now more broadly dispersed across the country, and lays out the particular issues states with new immigrant populations could face in implementing a legalization program.

“Recent growth and the geographic spread of the unauthorized immigrant population means that many states and localities will be in uncharted waters should Congress enact a new legalization program,” said Michele Waslin, manager of Pew's work on immigration and the states. “It is vital for state and local governments to understand their roles and be prepared for implementation.”

For the report, Pew examined the roll out of the Immigration Reform and Control Act, enacted in 1986, and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, initiated by the Obama administration in 2012. The report shows that state and local governments have been required, or have chosen, to take on several key responsibilities, including:

  • Outreach and public education. States and localities may inform potential applicants about programs and provide information about the application process.
  • Documentation. State and local governments may be the source of the documentation that applicants need to meet certain eligibility requirements, including presence in the United States for a defined period of time and proof of educational attainment.
  • Education. State and local institutions are likely to be the source of English language and U.S. history and civics education, as well as other specified education that applicants may need to qualify for a legalization program.
  • Protection from fraudulent or predatory immigration legal service providers. States have played a prominent role in protecting noncitizens from fraudulent activities targeting them and promising legal status for a fee—a practice that historically occurs when the federal government has announced a legalization or immigration relief program or even when there have been rumors of a possible new legalization program.

The report notes that the details of any future legalization program would affect the type and magnitude of involvement by states and localities. Because states are on the “front line,” the study reinforces the critical need for federal policymakers to consider the roles and preparedness of states and localities.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Learn more at

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