Immigration Reform Is Happening

With the federal government paralyzed by partisan bickering over undocumented immigrants, states and cities are leading the way.

Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

With all the mudslinging and acrimony in Washington over unaccompanied minors and unauthorized immigrants, you might have missed it. Immigration reform has already happened — in fact, hundreds of times. With the federal government incapacitated, states, cities, and municipalities have stepped into the fray.

In 2013 alone, 45 of the 50 state legislatures passed over 400 laws and resolutions on everything from law enforcement and employment to education and public benefits. Among this flurry were a few in the Arizona SB 1070 style — bills making life more miserable for undocumented immigrants. These laws ranged from blocking access to health care and schools to criminalizing common activities such as driving cars or buying homes. But the majority are actually designed to find ways to integrate undocumented immigrants — funding English language and citizenship classes and providing access to medical care and other social services.

Remember the 2008 presidential campaign debate angst over driver’s licenses? Eight states passed laws opening up the DMV to undocumented immigrants. Four more gave unauthorized students the right to pay in-state tuition, bringing the number of states opening up their colleges and universities to all residents to 15. Several others established "trust laws," which ensure police won’t pass undocumented migrants along to immigration authorities unless charged with or convicted of the most serious crimes. California — granted, an outlier — decided that undocumented immigrants can even practice law.

Cities, too, have embraced migrants. New York’s City Council just approved the creation of municipal identification cards that can be used to open bank accounts, use clinics, sign leases, or borrow books from public libraries. Affecting upwards of half a million New Yorkers, the Big Apple joins Los Angeles, San Francisco, and New Haven, Connecticut, among others, in providing IDs to its residents — regardless of the color of their passport. And while the cameras have been trained on communities such as Murrieta, California, where residents have lined the streets to protest the arrival of migrant kids, more than 30 cities — some in red states, some in blue, and home to 25 million Americans — have joined the "Welcoming America" network, embracing rather than rejecting new entrants. In others, citizens and officials have taken matters into their own hands, including Dallas County’s promise to shelter 2,000 of the undocumented children who have crossed the border so far this year.

These shifts reflect many undercurrents, starting with basic values. As immigration policies increasingly kick out children and tear families apart, it sits uneasily with the Sunday school lessons urging compassion and hospitality. In fact some of the most active voices for comprehensive immigration reform have come from those of the cloth, including leading evangelical churches and the Conference of Catholic Bishops.

Other seemingly unlikely supporters of local change have been cops. Over 100 prominent police chiefs, along with the Police Foundation — a nonpartisan, nonprofit research organization — have come out against what have become known as 287(g) programs that deputize local officials to enforce immigration laws. The added responsibilities, these police chiefs have found, both stretch finite resources and are often counterproductive to their core public-safety mission. Scared of drawing attention, unauthorized workers, parents, and siblings are reluctant to report crimes or serve as witnesses, breaking down the trust fundamental to community-policing models that have proved effective in keeping city streets safe.

And the economic repercussions of punishing anti-immigration laws have quieted some of their would-be champions. Pronounced has been the fallout from omnibus anti-immigrant legislation — laws, adopted by 11 states since 2010, that require officers to check immigration status and criminalize basic activities by undocumented immigrants, including working, signing contracts, or moving about without identification.

In Arizona, for instance, the number of undocumented immigrants fell by an estimated third in the wake of passing SB 1070. Concurrent Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that agricultural employment, the rate of business creation, and housing prices all plummeted, both in absolute terms and more tellingly vis-à-vis neighboring states, which did not implement similar legislation. One study by economists at the Center for Business and Economic Research at the University of Alabama, led by Samuel Addy, estimates Alabama’s business losses in the billions of dollars. In nearly every state that adopted less-than-friendly migrant policies, businesses — particularly those in agriculture, construction, hospitality, and food preparation — have struggled to find workers.

These outcomes complement what other academic analyses repeatedly show — that immigrants create jobs, boost tax revenues, and make communities safer. One study using U.S. census data and American Community Survey data finds that for every 1,000 immigrants in a county, 46 manufacturing jobs are created or preserved. It also found that local housing wealth increased by nearly $100,000 for each new immigrant. This is in part because immigrants are much more likely to file a patent or start a business than native-born Americans.

Unfortunately, this local legislative dynamism can’t solve the United States’ national immigration problems. Migration, as the movement of people across borders, is inherently a federal issue. The lack of a coherent, comprehensive immigration policy is increasingly costly — as the recent request by President Barack Obama for $3.7 billion to stem the humanitarian crisis of tens of thousands of kids crossing the U.S. southern border attests. In fact, many of the 253 state-level immigration resolutions boil down to pleas for the federal government to act. What the local activism does reflect is a general shift in the legislative direction from one of exclusion to one of accommodation — a change the federal government should follow.

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