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2014 Immigration Session Roundup

by Julia Wynn and Danielle Filson

With 2014 legislative sessions largely adjourned in statehouses across the nation, this is the 3rd in a series of issue-specific session roundups from Progressive States Network highlighting trends in different policy areas across the fifty states. - See more at: http://progressivestates.org/news/blog

President Barack Obama kicked off 2014 with a strong statement of support for immigration reform, declaring, “It is time to heed the call of business leaders, labor leaders, faith leaders, and law enforcement – and fix our broken immigration system.” In the months since the State of the Union Address, the frustrating stagnation in Congress has led many to become disheartened with the prospect of federal reform. Though a great deal of focus on immigration reform has been at the federal level, states have continued to make progress while the matter is considered by Congress.

Progressive States Network’s National Immigration Working Group is composed of state legislators from across the country committed to supporting pro-immigrant policies at the state and federal level including comprehensive immigration reform. If you're a legislator who's interested, join the working group here.


FEDERAL UPDATE

After months of negotiations by the Bipartisan Gang of Eight, the Senate finally passed a version of immigration reform in June of last year. A compromise in every respect, the federal bill garnered support from a bipartisan group – all Senate Democrats and 14 Republicans. As we know, the Republican-led House has not brought any immigration reform legislation to the floor since the Senate passed their bill. What seemed like the best opportunity for national reform in years was squandered by Republicans in Congress, effectively sending the action back to the states!

 


STEPS FORWARD

The TRUST Act

The TRUST Act is a significant piece of immigration legislation that has seen traction in state legislatures in the absence of comprehensive federal reform. The bill saves states from cooperating with federal immigration authorities who seek to access the immigration status of locally arrested and detained individuals. The policy protects immigrants who come into contact with state law enforcement from deportation or other undue consequences irrelevant to their state law offense. This encourages immigrant communities to cooperate with law enforcement and report crimes committed against them – including sexual assault and intimate partner violence. TRUST Act bills were introduced in Georgia, Massachusetts, Arizona, Washington and Maryland.   


Broad Calls for Reform and Necessary Protections

In the wake of broader federal inaction on immigration policy, New York state Senator Gustavo Rivera proposed a first of its kind bill in the New York Is Home Act. The bill creates a path for immigrants to become citizens of the state, which would grant them voting rights in state elections, the ability to assume civil office, and easier access to professional and driver’s licenses, provided they offer sufficient evidence of identity as well as residency and investment in the state of New York. The bill is one of the most comprehensive reform alternatives offered at the state level so far, and provides solid affirmation that legislators are serious about tackling immigration reform.

The Florida Senate proposed a plan for reform which incorporated tenets of the DREAM Act as well as encouraging Congress to allow a path to citizenship for current residents. The Georgia House introduced a bill requesting Congressional action on immigration. Unfortunately, both bills died in committee. However, in California, a different version of broad reform made progress. Parallel bills passed in both the House and Senate proposing a special immigration poll to be held in concurrence with the November 4 general election, the results of which would be reported to Congress. Voters would be asked whether Congress should pass comprehensive immigration reform incorporating a path to citizenship and halt deportations of parents whose children were born in the U.S. until such a reform is enacted. The parallel versions of the bill have not yet been reconciled.

In addition to larger reform efforts, several states took a stand to protect aspiring citizens from facing superfluous harm due to their status. Hawaii and New York introduced bills prohibiting the continual detention of unauthorized immigrants except in cases in which the individual has been convicted of a felony. Massachusetts floated a bill protecting residents from unfair investigations into their immigration status and ensuring their equal access to benefits. In California, legislators moved multiple measures protecting aspiring citizens from unjust treatment by law enforcement and employers. One such bill that passed guarantees immigrant workers the right to pursue civil rights action when their employers threaten to expose their citizenship status. A similar bill in Connecticut was reported favorably by the Senate and now awaits action in the House.


The DREAM Act

Washington passed an extension of their DREAM Act that was signed by Governor Jay Inslee. Washington had already ensured that high school graduates who were brought to the U.S. as undocumented children were eligible for in-state tuition, but the new bill extends the Washington DREAM Act to include financial aid opportunities for undocumented students regardless of DACA status.

 


STEPS BACKWARD

No TRUST or DREAMs for Some States

Despite the progressive action on immigration in some legislatures, states across the country continued to move an anti-immigrant agenda. Anti-TRUST Act legislation mandating state officials' cooperation with federal immigration authorities surfaced in Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Montana, and New Hampshire.Fortunately, Montana Governor Steve Bullock vetoed the legislation before it could be enacted. The rest of the measures have also not moved at this time. New Jersey's Assembly heard a related bill that empowered corrections officers to investigate the immigration status of inmates. Both chambers in Missouri also passed legislation that included a provision ordering state officials to make reasonable attempts to determine the immigration status of detainees.

Offsetting some of the progress made by states that initiated DREAM Act legislation, two states introduced bills that excluded undocumented immigrant students from such benefits. New Hampshire's legislation required students qualifying for in-state tuition to prove legal residency, and Missouri's measure mandated that undocumented students pay the same tuition rate as international students.


Other Barriers to Equal Treatment

Unauthorized immigrant workers took a blow in Ohio when senators introduced legislation excluding them from workers' compensation benefits. New Jersey Republicans also continued the war against fair integration by introducing two bills denying illegal immigrants public benefits and forbidding their admittance into public institutions of higher education respectively.


HIGHLIGHTS

 

While federal immigration reform is creating uncertainty for states, one way to improve fairness for immigrants is to pass legislation that helps all workers in industries that employ a disproportionate number of immigrants. For example, Connecticut, Illinois, and Massachusetts have all moved bills that establish a Domestic Workers Bill of Rights. Although the measure has just been introduced in Illinois, Massachusetts has already passed it through its Senate, and Connecticut's governor just signed it into law. These states are positioned to join California, Hawaii, and New York, which have already enacted Bills of Rights that guarantee domestic workers basic protections such as days of rest, freedom from harassment, and fair pay. With 65% of domestic workers being immigrants, initiatives such as a Bill of Rights ensure that those populations are receiving just treatment. The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights is also a women's issue, since 95% of domestic workers are women.

Check out these stats from The National Domestic Workers Alliance, http://www.domesticworkers.org