State Immigration Policy to Promote National Change

The national debate on immigration will be heating up in the coming months with the recent introduction of a new comprehensive immigration reform proposal by Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-IL) and a likely proposal from Senators Chuck Schumer (D-NY) and Lindsey Graham (R-SC).

While the debate will be likely fraught with fiery attacks, it's worth remembering that the public is still broadly supportive of humane immigration reform. A recent CNN poll found that only 37% of the public believes removing all undocumented immigrants from the country is reasonable policy, while two-thirds prefer a pathway to citizenship.

Using State Policy to Message Reform: Still, we can expect a range of anti-immigrant attacks in the coming months and much of it will take the form of state legislative proposals. Progressives need to mobilize in support of federal reform, but also need to be armed with smart state policy proposals that emphasize the areas where the public is supportive of immigrant integration into our communities. By better controlling the debate at the local and state level, progressives can help build support for federal reforms to regularize the legal status of undocumented immigrants and build a path to citizenship.

State policy campaigns need to emphasize the value of community integration to address the immediate needs of immigrant communities, redirect local public debates away from the "hot button" attacks of the rightwing, and strengthen the campaign for national reform. This Dispatch will outline model legislation enacted or proposed around the country in recent years that can accomplish that goal.

Networking Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy: Progressive States Network has also organized State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy to advance progressive state immigration efforts. To articulate our values, we have created principles for state legislators that embrace fair and comprehensive immigration reform at all levels of government.

Legislators can sign-on at or by e-mailing On that sign-up page, legislators can also sign onto the National Immigration Forum’s pledge for local/state elected leaders supporting comprehensive immigration reform.

Table of Contents:

- Messaging Positive State Immigration Policies

- Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy

- Immigrant Integration and Naturalization

- Immigrants and Public Benefits

- Voting Reform versus "Voter ID" Attacks

- Immigrant Outreach as Public Safety and Anti-Terror Policy

- Conclusion

- New Research Resources for Immigration Policy

Messaging Positive State Immigration Policies

Despite the acrimonious rhetoric around this issue, the reality is that there is support for smart, rational policies to encourage integration of immigrants in our communities. And in the long term, as many legal immigrants naturalize and the children of immigrants come of voting age, there is a deep majority that will reward elected leaders who act today to promote humane policies for new immigrants.

And despite reasonable concerns over unemployment and stagnant wages for native workers, there is little evidence that new immigrants play any significant role in hurting native workers and quite a bit of evidence that their work and entrepreneurial activity actually helps expand economic and employment growth for everyone.

While anti-immigrant organizations and politicians seek to capitalize on fear to pit white and African-American voters against Latinos and Asians, legal immigrants against undocumented immigrants, and native-born workers against foreign workers, progressive leaders can promote policies that unite people across those divides. In fact, strategic progressive policies can actually put supporters of such anti-immigrant policies on the defensive and undercut the political alliances that anti-immigrant forces are trying to build.

The key is to use legislative campaigns to actively focus public debate on areas where public attitudes towards immigrants are most positive, and to direct frustrations over the economy at the corporate interests who are most responsible for stagnating family incomes.

Key Policies to Promote in 2010: The following details five overarching issues for leaders to address. We explore this subject in depth in our updated State Immigration Project Policy Options report.

  • Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy: Redirect anger at lawlessness in the workplace toward employers who violate wage and other worker rights laws -- an approach that unites all workers, immigrant and native alike.
  • Encouraging Immigrant Integration and Naturalization: Highlight policies that help all immigrants to better integrate into society, a broadly popular policy and one that also unites the interests of legal and undocumented immigrants.
  • Immigrants and Public Benefits: Emphasize the benefits to the public from providing education and preventive care to immigrants. Support resolutions that demand that the federal government, which receives billions in taxes paid by undocumented workers, share those revenues with states to expand services for communities with heavy immigrant populations.
  • Voting Reform versus "Voter ID" Attacks: Challenge the voter ID requirements that are disenfranchising many legal voters and support anti-voter intimidation policies. Support reforms like same day registration and voting by mail to assist citizens forced to overcome any new barriers to voting.
  • Immigrant Outreach as Public Safety and Anti-Terror Policy: Support community policing policies that encourage immigrants to work closely with the police when they either see a crime or are victims themselves. Encourage community-policing efforts involving undocumented immigrant communities.

Wage Enforcement as Immigration Policy

As we noted last month when we promoted wage law enforcement as a strong progressive policy to advance in 2010, it's a great tool to undercut anti-immigrant policy attacks, as states ranging from Connecticut to Iowa to Kansas have found. If all employers had to pay a decent wage, the attraction of hiring undocumented immigrants would diminish tremendously. Since going after employers who violate wage laws will politically unite all workers, immigrant and native alike, cracking down on those abusive employers will actually strengthen the progressive political base.

Wage enforcement also exposes the hypocrisy of anti-immigrant activists posing as champions of workers. In a number of states like Kansas, legislators have attached wage law enforcement language to anti-immigrant bills, only to see the sponsors themselves walk away from their bills rather than put real teeth into minimum wage and overtime laws.

Key Wage Law Enforcement Policies: With studies finding that as many as 76% of low-wage wo rkers are not receiving legal wages under minimum wage and overtime laws, the most important step is for states to increase penalties for wage law violators, apply triple damages for employees seeking compensation, protect whistle-blowers from retaliation and crack down on abuses of independent contractor laws.

See PSN's model wage law enforcement legislation and an explanation of its provisions for details on the range of provisions states can use to tighten penalties.

Additional approaches include:

  • Expand State Resources for Enforcement: Increasing state enforcement and coordination between agencies is a method to crack down on employers violating the law. While funding for agencies is obviously tough given current budget deficits, wage law enforcement is a potential money-maker for states with many collecting tens of millions of dollars through task forces that crack down on wage law violations. See California's Joint Enforcement Strike Force and New York State Department of Labor's Bureau of Immigrant Worker Rights.
  • Enforce Wage Laws against Employers Using Immigrant Workers: In the words of New York's highest court, applying state wage laws fully against employers of undocumented workers is necessary since weak employment rights for undocumented workers make "it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens [and] would actually increase employment levels of undocumented aliens, not decrease it." To deter employers seeking to exploit the vulnerability of immigrant workers, laws like California's SB 1818 make it clear that all legal remedies are available to workers regardless of immigration status.

  • Make it a Crime to Coerce Labor Based on Worker's Immigration Status: States are increasingly protecting the victims of human trafficking and punishing employers and others who coerce immigrants to perform labor under threat. For example, in 2009, Virginia passed HB 2016, which expands abduction to include abducting a person with the intent to force labor or services and redefines intimidation to include withholding a person's passport or like documents. Bills such as Minnesota’s SF 1050, not only increase criminal penalties for trafficking offenses but also provide for victim services such as housing, counseling, medical care, child care, legal assistance and employment and language training services.

  • Stop Government Purchases from Domestic and Overseas Sweatshops: California, Illinois, Maine, New Jersey, New York, Pennsylvania, along with sixty cities, counties and school districts, have changed their procurement policies to ban government purchases from contractors violating internationally recognized labor rights.

Progressive States Network - Promoting Wage Law Enforcement Policies in 2010 National Employment Law Project (NELP) - Enforcement of Workplace Standards Interfaith Worker Justice - Thou Shalt Not Steal - A Toolkit on Wage Theft LA Times, How L.A. Kept Out a Million Migrants- article highlighting how strong wage enforcement efforts encouraged undocumented immigrants to seek out states with weaker wage laws and enforcement

Immigrant Integration and Naturalization

When New Jersey's Blue Ribbon Panel on Immigrant Integration recently outlined a range of ways the state could better integrate new immigrants into the state's economy and communities, it followed several states that have promoted immigrant integration policies in recent years. Not untypically, the New Jersey panel found that immigrants bring in almost one-quarter (23%) of all earnings statewide with 1 in 5 entrepreneurs in New Jersey being an immigrant. Accordingly, integration policies are critical for economic growth strategies in the states.

Illinois has created the most comprehensive "Office of New Americans" involving business, religious and community leaders to expand English language programs, welcome centers, jobs programs and document translation programs aimed at new immigrants; but a number of states have promoted a range of legislation to better integrate new immigrants. Key policies include:

  • Expand Access to Adult English Classes: In 2009 Tennessee passed SB 1745 establishing and funding the "We Want to Learn English Initiative," which was modeled on Illinois' 2007 SB 1446. In 2009, Minnesota passed MN S 2081, which funds job-training and coaching for immigrants and refugees.
  • Government Offices to Assist the Naturalization Process for Aspiring Citizens: Illinois Office of New Americans has become the leader among the at least 15 states that have offices to tailor services to immigrants and assist with naturalization procedures. These state offices have been so successful that in 2009 the Obama administration took a cue from the states and allotted $10 million for the creation of an immigrant-integration office at U.S. Citizen and Immigration Services. Some states are proposing refundable tax credits for naturalization expense, such as Minnesota's HF 747 to create a specific Citizenship Income Tax Credit and Indiana's SB 240, which would create an Adult Education Tax Credit to give employers a credit of up to $300 per employee and up to $5,000 per year for payment of an employee's expenses related to adult education programs, including citizenship training.
  • In-State Tuition and Scholarships for All State Residents: One key to integrating the children of new immigrants into our communities is making sure they can get a college education. In 2009, Wisconsin joined ten other states that have passed laws, often called DREAM Acts to provide the in-state tuition rate to undocumented immigrants who attend state colleges and universities. Legislation to grant undocumented immigrants eligibility for in-state tuition at state schools was also introduced in Massachusetts (H 1175 ), New Jersey (A194/S1036), Oregon (HB 2939) and Colorado (SB 170), where the bill passed the House.
  • Protect Immigrants from Private Discrimination: To prevent local discrimination against immigrants, legislation should add immigration and citizenship status to the grounds of prohibited discrimination under fair housing laws and/or prohibit cities, counties, and landlords from making inquiries into immigration status. California AB 976 was enacted in October 2007 to block local ordinances that promote housing discrimination against immigrant community members.

Migration Policy Institute - Leaving Too Much to Chance: A Roundtable on Immigrant Integration Policy
Grantmakers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees - Investing in Our Communities: Strategies for Immigrant Integration (2006)
Massachusetts Immigrant and Refugee Advocacy Coalition (MIRA) - New Workers, New Voters: Why Massachusetts Should Recruit, Retain, and Train Newcomers (2008)
Immigration Policy Center - From Newcomers to Americans: An Integration Policy for a Nation of Immigrants (April 2007)

Immigrants and Public Benefits

Many of the attacks on immigrants are focused on the idea that undocumented immigrants use more benefits than they pay in taxes. Advocates first need to highlight the multiple studies that have shown that even when you add the total number of limited services for which they do qualify -- public school education and emergency medical care for example -- undocumented immigrants pay significantly more in state taxes than states spend on those benefits.

Progressives need to emphasize three key points beyond educating the population:

  • When draconian ID requirements are imposed, legal citizens lacking required paperwork lose more benefits under such policies than undocumented immigrants;
  • The costs of trying to screen out undocumented immigrants are higher than their current burden to taxpayers;
  • Federal level anti-immigrant politicians have made the problem worse for state and local leaders by denying federal aid for communities needing financial help.

Key approaches to highlight this message to the public include:

  • Commission Studies Showing Taxes Paid and Economic Contributions by Immigrants: For example, Maryland passed HB 1602, establishing a 3-year Commission to Study the Impact of Immigrants in that state, while Virginia's HB 1673, passed in April 2007, created the Virginia Commission on Immigration.
  • Measure Costs of Burdensome ID Rules for Receiving Benefits: One study in Colorado found that the law there was costing the state an additional $2 million in increased administrative costs without any identifiable savings. In Kansas, the Wichita Eagle highlighted that Kansas spent $1 million last year to comply with federal proof-of-citizenship requirements for the state SCHIP program and caught only one undocumented immigrant using the program. States should commission their own studies to show the impact of ID laws, which seem to impose economic burdens on legal residents of their states.
  • Provide Health Care for Immigrant Communities: Many states are providing health care to immigrants, both legal and undocumented, recognizing that long-term investments in education and health care will pay off with a more skilled and healthy workforce in the future. Illinois' AllKids program extended its coverage to children of all income levels, regardless of immigration status. Iowa's S 389 expands health insurance eligibility by removing the previous 5-year wait for legal immigrant children to become eligible for SCHIP funding.
  • Resolutions Asking Federal Government to Provide Funding for Local Immigrant Services: Since the federal government collects many taxes from undocumented immigrants, including social security taxes, for which the federal government has to pay no benefits, states have demanded more funding for immigrant services in the states. Past examples proposed include California SJRX1, Arizona HCM 2011, Minnesota SF 886 and HB 771, Oregon HJM 24, Virginia SJR 120, and South Carolina HR 4347.

National Immigration Law Center, Immigrants and the US Health Care System
Texas Office of the Controller, Undocumented Immigrants in Texas: A Financial Analysis of the Impact to the State Budget and Economy
Immigration Policy Center, Undocumented Immigrants as Taxpayers
Immigration Policy Center, Assessing the Economic Impact of Immigration at the State and Local Level (April 2008)
National Immigration Law Center, Paying Their Way and Then Some
Government Accountability Office (GAO), Medicaid: States Reported that Citizenship Documentation Requirement Resulted in Enrollment Declines for Eligible Citizens and Posed Administrative Burdens (June 2007)
National Immigration Law Center, Comprehensive Health Care for Immigrants: A Sound Strategy for Fiscal and Public Health

Voting Reform versus "Voter ID" Attacks

The charge that undocumented immigrants voting is a major problem is, unfortunately, nothing but a big lie, stoking hate on pure fiction. At its "Truth about Fraud" website, for example, the Brennan Center for Justice has highlighted that fraud is a red herring used by the right-wing to disenfranchise legal voters through abusive identification rules. Yet the effect of abusive voter ID requirements is to prevent citizens from voting -- a report prepared for the federal Election Assistance Commission found that in states with voter ID requirements, blacks were 5.7% less likely to vote and Hispanics appeared to be 10% less likely to vote under those requirements.

Progressive leaders should both challenge these attacks on voting and demand greater assistance to citizens in exercising their right to vote, including:

  • Hold Hearings or Create Commissions to Expose the Lack of Immigrant Voter Fraud: State leaders need to expose the fraud in anti-immigrant myths about non-citizens voting in large numbers, and use such hearings or commissions to refocus debate on the real ways voters are disenfranchised -- by burdensome election rules and voter suppression tactics.
  • Pass Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Acts: States need Deceptive Practices and Voter Intimidation Prevention Acts to create strong penalties for groups that attempt to suppress voter turnout through deception and intimidation.
  • Pass Laws to Make Voting Easier Once People Manage to Register to Vote: Especially in states moving to create greater hurdles to registration and voting, progressives need to demand simplification of the process once people produce the necessary ID. For example, in 2007 both Iowa and North Carolina approved same day voter registration laws.

Brennan Center - The Truth About Fraud
Brennan Center - Best practices in database matching and voter verification
Project Vote - The Politics of Voter Fraud
Demos - Election Day Registration
Progressive States Network - The New Voter Suppression and the Progressive Response
Progressive States Network - Supreme Court Upholds Indiana Photo ID Law, Undermines Voting Rights

Immigrant Outreach as Public Safety and Anti-Terror Policy

As we outlined in more detail last November, more states and communities are recognizing the financial and social costs of anti-immigrant approaches and are looking to alternative solutions that emphasize community policing that incorporates immigrant community leaders in law enforcement efforts. Chiefs of police in major metropolitan areas have collectively advocated against local enforcement of federal immigration law.

Instead, they are encouraging policies that protect witnesses and victims of crimes from harassment to encourage them to come forward in investigations, and restricting racial profiling to prevent police efforts from harming law-abiding citizens. These policies include:

  • Community Policing - Encouraging Immigrant Witnesses and Victims of Crime to Come Forward: Progressive leaders can ally with both law enforcement and victims' rights groups by promoting policies that protect immigrant victims of crime when they contact the police, and by encouraging community policing efforts in immigrant communities. This includes effective policies like Hawaii's HB 2140 which protects undocumented victims of domestic violence from investigation or the 2007 Oregon Revised Statutes 181.850, which prevents local police from using agency resources to pursue immigrants who lack a naturalization status. Proposals like Texas HB 2222 would prevent officers from inquiring into the nationality or immigration status of a victim or witness to a crime except as necessary to the investigation.
  • Stop Racial Profiling and Protecting Civil Liberties: One means of addressing local law enforcement of immigration laws is to pass racial profiling bans and gather more accurate information about the pedestrians and drivers that police stop and arrest. Currently, twenty-three states have anti-racial profiling laws on the books including New Mexico HB 428, which enacted a ban on racial profiling and bias-based profiling just this year in part to combat local law enforcement of federal immigration bills.
  • Issue Drivers' Licenses and Identification: While only a few states still issue drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, progressive leaders need to emphasize that many top law enforcement officials are on record supporting drivers license identification programs as a way to bring undocumented immigrants out of the shadows, and better track state residents for law enforcement purposes.

Police Foundation - The Role of Local Police: Striking a Balance Between Immigration Enforcement and Civil Liberties
Major Cities Chiefs - M.C.C. Immigration Committee Recommendations for Enforcement of Immigration Laws by Local Police Authorities
Bill of Rights Defense Committee - Model ordinances opposing local law enforcement of immigration
National Immigration Law Center, Laws, Resolutions, and Policies Instituted Across the U.S. Limiting Enforcement of Immigration Laws by State and Local Authorities (updated April 2008)
Appleseed, Forcing Our Blues into Gray Areas: Local Police and Federal Immigration Enforcement
Vera Institute of Justice, Strengthening Relations between Police and Immigrants and Building Strong Police-Immigrant Community Relations: Lessons from a New York City Project


State-by-state, we need to promote policies that bring diverse communities together while highlighting the American ideals that unite people rather than divide them, We need strategies that isolate those who promote scapegoating of immigrants and instead emphasize the issues from wage enforcement to integrating new immigrants into our local economies that will benefit everyone, native and immigrant families alike.

New Research Resources for Immigration Policy

The Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform: Those that fear that the current economic downturn makes for a poor climate to debate immigration reform should consider the wealth of research that plainly shows that a long-lasting economic recovery depends on fixing the current broken immigration system.

The Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center recently released Raising the Floor for American Workers: The Economic Benefits of Comprehensive Immigration Reform. The January 2010 report states that legalizing undocumented workers in the US and creating a program that allows for future immigration based on the labor market would add an estimated $1.5 trillion to the U.S. gross domestic product over 10 years, support nearly a million jobs, increase wages and generate more tax revenue. This joint report follows an Immigration Policy Center report released earlier this year, The Economics of Immigration Reform: Legalizing Undocumented Workers a Key to Economic Recovery, that also makes the case for immigration reform as an essential part of a national economic recovery.

From across the ideological spectrum, the Cato Institute last summer released a report which showcased virtually the same findings. Restriction or Legalization? Measuring the Economic Benefits of Immigration Reform found that the legalization of low-skilled immigrant workers would yield significant income gains for American workers and households.

The Immigration Policy Center has also released a series of state-specific reports outlining the economic benefits of immigrants as not only workers, but also as taxpayers and consumers. States examined in the series include:

The AFL-CIO, American Rights at Work and the National Employment Law Project released a joint report documenting the effect harsh immigration enforcement has had on the protection of both native and immigrant workers' rights. ICED OUT: How Immigration Enforcement Has Interfered with Workers' Rights examines the effect unscrupulous employers who fail to uphold labor standards for certain groups of workers, like undocumented immigrants, have one all all U.S. workers.