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Immigration Policy in the States- Mid-session Developments

With many states having finished or well into their legislative sessions, the story on immigration in the states is one of a few bad bills passed, a lot of bad bills defeated and a few positive programs moving forward.

Most states have rejected anti-immigrant bills filed, while a number of states where bills initially moved forward defeated or stalled them in the end:

Even many bills that passed were often limited or qualified in various ways:

  • Utah's Governor Jon Huntsman Jr. signed anti-immigrant bill SB 81 into law.  Provisions that would have ended Utah's access to in-state tuition rates were stripped from the bill before passage.  The remaining provisions of the bill -- allowing local law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration laws, forbidding localities from engaging in "sanctuary" policies, and requiring public employers and their contractors to verify the legal status of workers -- won't go into effect until July 2009 on the hope that the "immigration problem" will be solved by Congress and a new administration before SB 81 goes into effect.

  • In Mississippi, the legislature sent SB 2988, which would require companies to use E-Verify to check the citizenship status of their employees, to the Governor with felony sanctions against both employers and employees. While Governor Haley Barbour signed the bill, he noted that "the federal government itself has said E-Verify is not a reliable system" and emphasized that small employers are exempt until 2011.

  • In Virginia, the legislature rejected bills that would have denied undocumented students access to higher education (HB 14), punished citizens who assist undocumented immigrants in obtaining any "benefit, service, status, or privilege" (HB 45), established English as the state's official language (HB 55), and seized the vehicles of individuals driving without a license (HB 63, HB 178, HB 180, HB 433, HB 446, SB 515).  What did pass were companion bills, HB 820/SB 609, to require a check of citizenship on anyone taken into custody at a jail or correctional facility, a bill to suspend a business' right to operate in Virginia for at least a year if it is found to employ an undocumented worker (HB 926), and another to require all government contractors to state in a written contract that they won't employ an undocumented worker (HB 1298).

On the driver's license issue, Oregon's legislature codified SB 1080, the Governor's Executive Order to make lawful presence a requirement for Oregon's driver's licenses.  Similarly, Idaho's Governor signed into law HB 366 which further restricts immigrants' access to driver's licenses by requiring licenses issued to legal immigrants to have expiration dates matching the expiration of their immigration documentation. But the Maryland legislature rejected proposals to prohibit licenses for undocumented immigrants in that state.

A number of positive immigration bills have also passed this session, including:

  • New Mexico's legislature approved the passage of a bill, SB 71, to criminalize human trafficking that extends state benefits to victims and creates a task force to further study the issue and make legislative recommendations.

  • At the end of February, Washington Governor Christine Gregoire signed an Executive Order creating a New Americans Policy Council that will promote strategies to help legal immigrants become naturalized and learn English language skills, as well as facilitate public-private partnerships to better integrate new Americans into the fabric of the state's society and economy.  The Washington state legislature took the additional step of providing $340,000 in funding to promote community economic development and build the capacity of organizations across the state that provide naturalization assistance to legal permanent residents.  This policy will  help integrate the estimated 135,000 legal permanent residents in the state eligible for citizenship and boost economic development through greater workforce and civic participation.

Many bills, both bad and good, are still active in other states.  For example, while the passing of Georgia's "crossover day" means that 6 anti-immigrant bills are dead, some dangerous bills remained, including HB 978, which would allow police to confiscate vehicles of undocumented drivers who get into a traffic accident, and SB 350, which would make it a felony to drive without a license.  On the other hand, a number of states, like Iowa, are still considering wage enforcement and other measures to crack down on low-wage employers, instead of scapegoating undocumented immigrants.