Immigration Policy in the States: The Bad, the Good & the Politically Smart

Monday, July 30, 2007

Immigration Policy in the States: The Bad, the Good & the Politically Smart

Conference Call

The groundbreaking Healthy Wisconsin initiative, which guarantees health care for all residents, will be the subject of a conference call sponsored by Families USA, the Universal Health Care Action Network, and the Progressive States Network, who is hosting the call.

Wednesday, August 1st, from Noon to 1pm (EDT)

Join us and Wisconsin Sen. Jon Erpenbach, and Robert Kraig from Citizen Action of Wisconsin.

Valuing Families

Immigration Policy in the States: The Bad, the Good & the Politically Smart

After the collapse of the effort to address immigration at the national level, we saw good news last week at the local level on how progressives should be addressing the issue.  

On one hand, the punitive, anti-immigrant ordinance in Hazleton, Pennsylvania was struck down by a federal court, which found that the ordinance was preempted by federal law and unconstitutional since it stripped individuals of rights without due process. Many other anti-immigrant state and local laws are likely to be blocked on similar grounds.

On the other hand, the city of New Haven in Connecticut began issuing municipal identification cards to encourage new immigrants to better integrate into the local community. Said Alderman Yusuf I. Shaw, "We believe services should be given to everyone equally."

Across the country in 2006, 570 bills involving immigrants were introduced in state legislatures. In 2007, that number increased to 1169. These have been joined by a slew of local anti-immigrant ordinances across the country. Six states-- Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Idaho, Oklahoma, and Tennessee -- have enacted significant anti-immigrant legislation in the last two years.

Other states, however, have rejected such legislation as wrong-headed. 

  • Indiana overwhelmingly rejected a bill to restrict access to public services by an 74 to 19 vote in one chamber. 
  • Virginia rejected dozens of anti-immigrant bills in the 2007 session. 
  • In Kansas, faith-based groups allied with the League of Municipalities to defeat one measure.
  • Texas defeated an array of bills.

And states from Nebraska to Illinois have promoted policies to welcome new immigrants as vital parts of the local economy.

There is little question that the politics of immigration is complex, with many American voters having conflicting feelings about undocumented immigrants. Many voters do advocate beefed up border enforcement, but overwhelmingly support legalization and other measures to bring existing undocumented immigrants into mainstream American society. 

While some rightwing politicians see appeals to xenophobia as a smart political strategy, the reality is that Latino citizens are one of the fastest growing demographics-- and a traditional swing vote in elections.  Part of the reason for progressive victories in 2006 was a backlash by Latino voters against what they saw as anti-immigrant conservative politicians.

As this Dispatch will highlight, there is a whole mix of both xenophobic and progressive approaches to the immigrant issue -- and even sharp divisions over what the "problem" is. But whether the issue is extending public benefits to new immigrants, dealing with voting rights, or raising wage standards, there are clear progressive approaches that both address the human needs of all Americans and are the politically smartest strategies.  

Valuing Families

Public Benefits and New Immigrants

One great focus of new anti-immigrant legislation has been to supposedly deny public benefits to undocumented immigrants by imposing new identification verification requirements needed to qualify.  

Citizens Lose Benefits under Bad Immigration Policies: Many of the requirements are so extreme, however, that many legal citizens were turned away. For example, Colorado no longer accepted even a U.S. passport as documentation to obtain a driver's license, leading to the irony that one of the state's main proponents of the bill saw his daughter rejected for a license.

The sad irony, as the National Immigration Law Center notes, is that "U.S. citizens are less likely than noncitizens to have the documents required by the new verification laws." (p.7) 

This was highlighted when the federal government imposed new identification requirements for new applicants for Medicaid.  The result? Initial estimates were that 1.2 to 2.3 million citizens lacked the documents required by the new rules and were in danger of losing coverage.  Follow-up studies by both the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) found that Medicaid rolls declined in 44 states after Congress imposed the new requirements -- and most of those losing coverage were legal residents eligible for coverage but unable to produce the necessary documents. For other social programs covered by the states with the new anti-immigrant laws, confusion and fear led people to lose other benefits.

No Savings:  While the justification for passing these anti-immigrant laws was to save taxpayer money, follow-up studies have shown little evidence of any savings -- hardly surprising since there was little evidence beforehand that undocumented immigrants were receiving many benefits. In fact, 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.

Multiple studies have shown that even when you total up the 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 benefits. The Texas State Controller, for example, estimated that undocumented immigrants added over $17 billion to the state economy and paid over $400 million more in taxes than they received in benefits from the state.

Positive Alternative Policies on Public Benefits:  Rather than pursuing useless and costly attempts to deny benefits that undocumented immigrants don't even qualify for, most states are actually trying to spend more on new immigrants, recognizing that long-term investments in education and health care will pay off with a more skilled and healthy workforce in the future.

More than half of the states spend their own funds to provide services to at least some immigrants ineligible for federal services.  On medical care in particular, Illinois' new AllKids program extended coverage to children of all income levels, regardless of immigration status. It was joined by Massachusetts, Hawaii, New York and California as those states continued to expand health benefits for many immigrant children. The state of Washington this spring extended health coverage to all children in families up to 250% of the federal poverty line (moving to 300% in 2009), again regardless of immigration status. As Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger said, including undocumented immigrants in his health care proposals was a matter of common sense:

[T]he decision for my team was do we treat them in emergency rooms at the highest cost available or we do it right and do it efficiently?

Nebraska last year joined nine other states that have passed laws to provide the in-state tuition rate to undocumented immigrants who attend state colleges and universities. This year, the Connecticut legislature voted to do so as well, although the Governor unfortunately vetoed the bill.

As we discussed last fall, Illinois has created the most comprehensive "New Americans Policy" involving business, religious and community leaders to expand English language programs, welcome centers, jobs programs and document translation programs aimed at new immigrants. 11 other states have offices that help tailor services to immigrants, but Illinois is emerging as a leader among states in investing to integrate new immigrants into our society.

Valuing Families

Voter ID Laws Backfire on Anti-Immigrant Politicians

The cynical goals of voter identification laws pushed by the rightwing is highlighted by a basic fact-- there is zero evidence that undocumented immigrants are illegally voting. At its "Truth about Fraud" website, for example, the Brennan Center for Justice has highlighted that fraud is a red herring used by the rightwing to disenfrachise legal voters through abusive identification rules.

This is emphasized by the current national scandal over how the Bush Administration fired U.S. Attorneys, in part because some of those appointees refused to go along with partisan pressure to generate non-existent cases of voter fraud.  Five years of investigations revealed no real evidence of voter fraud by an administration as determined to find non-existent voter fraud as non-existent WMDs in Iraq.

But while little fraud has been stopped, the result in states that have implemented voter ID rules has been a sharp drop in voting by legally eligible voters, the real goal of rightwing campaigners promoting the myth of undocumented immigrants 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.

Political Backlash by Latino Voters:  This might be a cause for rightwing proponents of these voter ID bills to celebrate, but the naked attempts to suppress legal rights has in response stirred a powerful voter registration movement among citizens and a naturalization movement among legal residents.

Traditionally, Latino citizens have voted at far lower rates than eligible whites, but that appears to be changing as such potential voters are being mobilized to vote, just as Latino (and other immigrant) voting spiked in California in the mid-90s after the anti-immigrant Prop 187 was passed in that state.

While most focus has been on the millions of undocumented immigrants, much ignored are the estimated eight million legal immigrants who are now being mobilized to apply for citizenship. The National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials Educational Fund (NALEO) organized the ya es hora ┬íCiudadania! (It's About Time - Citizenship!) campaign coordinated by national organizations, community groups, unions such as SEIU, and media partners like Univision to motivate eligible permanent residents to apply for citizenship. The results of this effort to draw more Hispanics into the US political process has been overwhelming as citizenship applications doubled in 2007 in areas where the campaign was launched and have increased 65% across the country (and over 110% in Los Angeles!). Latinos made up only 6% of the electorate back in 2004, but with massive voter registration and citizenship drives, the rightwing seems to have awakened a sleeping giant that will soon have political clout more in line with its 14.3% of the population.

State Policies to Assist Naturalization:  States and local governments can take action to assist this process, improving registration procedures at driver licensing offices and other government offices, and assisting in the naturalization process. Santa Clara County, California, developed an Immigrant Relations and Integration Services (IRIS) to support immigrant integration programs in the county, one of the inspirations for Illinois' Office of New Americans, which also helps with the naturalization process. Massachusetts operates an Office for Refugees and Immigrants that also assists in citizenship efforts.

Valuing Families

Workplace Enforcement

Beyond public benefits and voting, a central focus of recent anti-immigrant proposals has been to crackdown on undocumented immigrants in the workplace. These proposals tap the fears of other workers that wages are being driven down by employers hiring undocumented immigrants to work in substandard conditions for sub-minimum wages.

However, it's hard to take the good faith of such rightwing campaigners seriously when they attack immigrants in the name of protecting workers, yet oppose every effort to raise the minimum wage or enforce existing workers' rights. 

For example, the Arizona legislature supposedly enacted its "Fair and Legal Employment Act," HR 2779, to protect legal employees and punish employers of undocumented immigrants, but this is the same legislature that vociferously opposed raising the minimum wage last year. It took a citizen ballot initiative to do so last fall. Similarly, the federal budget spends a grand total of $177 million  to enforce wage and hour laws, while immigration enforcement receives $13 billion -- nearly one hundred times as much for cracking down on immigrants as cracking down on businesses violating wage laws.

With a majority of workers in industries like nursing homes and restaurants -- most of them legally in this country -- robbed of wages through illegal violations of wage and hour laws, you would think those who bemoan the fate of low-wage workers would launch an outcry over this paltry appropriation for wage enforcement.  Instead, all you hear are calls for more money for border enforcement and none to actually help workers enforce their rights to lawful wages.

Fight illegal immigration by raising immigrant wages:  It might seem counterintuitive, but on another level, it's quite obvious: cracking down on sweatshops and illegal wage payers would be a far more effective deterrent to employers recruiting undocumented immigrants.  If all employers had to pay a decent wage, the attraction of hiring undocumented immigrants would diminish tremendously, a point the Drum Major Institute emphasized in their Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class: 2007 Edition.

Since illegal employers thrive on a workforce too scared to report their actions to the authorities, strengthening the rights of undocumented workers is a key tool for undermining the sweatshop economy.  As New York's highest court said in a decision that strengthened the right of  undocumented workers to sue their employers, the lack of such rights would just "make it more financially attractive to hire undocumented aliens."  California embodied this principle in law, SB 1818, back in 2002 to affirm that all labor protections are available to any employee "regardless of immigration status."

More broadly, Progressive States has highlighted a range of tools for states to crack down on illegal sweatshops and wage law violators, from increasing penalties to expanding enforcement money to encouraging employees to blow the whistle to tightening rules on independent contractors and other "fly-by-night" employment situations.

Does such an approach work?  In Los Angeles, a historic gateway for immigration, the last decade saw a series of legislative crackdowns on sweatshop conditions and a raised minimum wage.  As the Los Angeles Times detailed, the result was that an estimated one million undocumented immigrants bypassed the city, immigrating to states with weaker labor laws where low-wage employers could thrive hiring exploited undocumented workers:

Surely, an approach to immigration control that simply tolerated fewer sweatshops and slums and hiked the federal minimum wage would be cheaper -- and more neighborly -- than building a 2,000-mile security fence, militarizing the border or issuing a national identity card. Short of federal intervention, the L.A. example shows that states and cities have the policy tools to deflect low-wage immigrants heading their way.

Valuing Families


The chant of rightwing "get tough on immigration" campaigners may have undermined federal immigration reform for the time being, but state leaders are increasingly seeing rightwing solutions to immigration as not only ineffective and expensive, but dangerous to their long-term political survival as growing numbers of Latino voters gain citizenship and vote. 

However, there are a range of smart, effective solutions to better integrate new immigrants into local communities and economies, while cracking down on the sweatshop conditions that undermine wage standards for all workers.   


Immigration Policy in the States: The Bad, the Good & the Politically Smart

ACLU, Federal Court Strikes Down Discriminatory Anti-Immigrant Law in Hazleton, Pennsylvania

Stateline, State immigration laws face legal doubts

City of New Haven, NEW HAVEN’S ELM CITY RESIDENT CARDS ”“ Fact Sheet

NY Times, Immigration Bill Provisions Gain Wide Support in Poll

U.S. News & World Report, '06 Latino Vote May Spell Trouble for GOP

NILC, State and Local Policies on Immigrant Access to Services (May 2007)

NCSL, State Legislation Related to Immigration Enacted and Vetoed (Oct 31, 2006)

NCSL, Overview of State Legislation Related to Immigration and Immigrants in 2007 (April 2007)

Public Benefits and New Immigrants

Denver Post, Colo. Immigration Law Falls Short of Goal: State Agencies $2 million cost and no savings

Center for Budget and Policy PrioritiesNew Medicaid Citizenship Documentation Requirements is Taking a Toll (Mar. 2007)

Government Accountability Office (GAO), Medicaid: States Reported that Citizenship Documentation Requirement Resulted in Enrollment Declines for Eligible Citizens and Posed Administrative Burdens (June 2007)

Urban Institute, Civic Contributions: Taxes Paid by Immigrants in the Washington, D.C. Metropolitan Area (May 2006)

California Immigrant Policy Center, Looking Forward: Immigrant Contributions to the Golden State (2005)

Texas Office of the Controller, Undocumented Immigrants in Texas: A Financial Analysis of the Impact to the State Budget and Economy (Dec. 2006)

Grant-makers Concerned with Immigrants and Refugees, Investing in Our Communities: Strategies for Immigrant Integration (2006).

Progressive States, IL: Policies to Bring Immigrants into Economic Mainstream

Voter ID Laws Backfire on Anti-Immigrant Politicians

Progressive States, Fighting Vote Suppression by the Rightwing

New York Times: In 5-Year Effort, Scant Evidence of Voter Fraud

Brennan Center, The Truth About Fraud

Project Vote, The Politics of Voter Fraud

Century Foundation, Where's the Voter Fraud?

Eagleton Institute, Testimony presented to the U. S. Election Assistance Commission (February 8, 2007).

Dept. of Homeland Security, Estimates of the Legal Permanent Resident Population and Population Eligible to Naturalize in 2004

Pew Hispanic Center, Hispanics and the 2004 Election

National Council of La Raza, Leap to Action Voter Mobilization Project

Southwest Voter Registration Education Project

League of United Latin American Citizens, Voter Registration

National Immigration Forum, New Wave of Voters Coming: Citizenship Applications Up 61%

Workplace Enforcement

Progressive States, Eye on Immigration

Drum Major Institute emphasized in their Principles for an Immigration Policy to Strengthen and Expand the American Middle Class: 2007 Edition

California SB 1818 -- Law declaring that all legal remedies are available to workers regardless of immigration status

New York Balbuena v. IDR Realty - New York Court of Appeals decision affirming immigrant workers' legal rights

National Employment Law Project, Workplace Rights for Immigrant Workers

Progressive States, Cracking Down on Wage Violations

LA Times, How L.A. Kept Out a Million Migrants

Eye on the Right

The right-wing loves to decry the failure of our education system, especially as a reason to privatize schools through a voucher system. A perennial piece of evidence is our lagging behind other nations in standardized science test scores. But it all seems rather disingenuous, considering the Right's unwillingness to fund education and their silence about the loud creationist activism of their fundamentalist religious wing.

Recently, a fundamentalist Christian left threatening letters for a number of evolutionary biology professors in Boulder, Colorado. The envelopes, complete with skulls and crossbones, contained a message "that every true Christian should be ready and willing to take up arms to kill the enemies of Christian society. Aside from the absurdity of letting scripture dictate science education, where was the headline about this Talibangelical approach, using threats of violence towards educators?

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The Stateside Dispatch is written and edited by:

Nathan Newman, Policy Director
Mijin Cha, Policy Specialist
Adam Thompson, Policy Specialist
John Bacino, Communications Associate


Please shoot me an email at if you have feedback, tips, suggestions, criticisms, or nominations for any of our sidebar features.

John Bacino
Editor, Stateside Dispatch


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