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As I write this piece, summer is slowly turning into fall, the leaves are just starting to change their colors, and Congress has come back to work from its summer recess. Comprehensive Immigration Reform (“CIR”) is only slightly closer to reality than it was since the U.S. Senate passed a marked-up and amended version of the Gang of Eight’s Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act. The House of Representatives continues to take baby-steps toward a piecemeal approach at CIR. We’ll see what happens there.
So, instead of focusing on what’s going on in Washington, D.C. in terms of CIR, I thought it might be interesting to take a different approach for this month’s article. That is, what’s been going on at the state level on the immigration front?
The National Conference of State Legislatures (“NCSL”) recently reported that “[a]s of June 30, 2013, state legislatures had already exceeded the number of laws and resolutions enacted in all of 2012. In the first half of 2013, lawmakers in 43 states and the District of Columbia enacted 146 laws and 231 resolutions related to immigration, for a total of 377. This is an 83 percent increase from the 206 laws and resolutions enacted in the first half of 2012.”
The issues touched upon nationwide have been expansive: education, employment, health, human trafficking, ID’s and driver’s licenses, law enforcement and public benefits, to name just a few.
I started out this column noting that our immigration system is badly broken at the federal level. The fact that the states, therefore, have responded by passing their own patchwork of laws attempting to regulate immigration, typically considered to be within the exclusive jurisdiction of the federal government, makes the situation even worse.
The reason for this uptick in state-sponsored immigration legislation is reported to be two-fold. First, in 2012, states seemed to wait for the outcome of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Arizona v. United States. On June 25, 2012, the Supreme Court overturned three of four provisions in Arizona’s S.B.1070 regarding that states authority in immigration enforcement.
Second, just a couple of few weeks earlier than the Supreme Court’s decision, the Obama Administration issued a new policy on deferred action for childhood arrivals (commonly known as “DACA”). On June 15, 2012, then-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano announced that certain people who came to the United States as children and who meet several key guidelines could request consideration of deferred action for a period of two (2) years, subject to renewal, and could also be eligible for work authorization. Deferred action is a discretionary determination by the Department of Homeland Security (“DHS”) to defer the removal action of an individual as an act of prosecutorial discretion. Deferred action does not, however, provide an individual with lawful status.
According to the NCSL, a number of state-enacted immigration laws have been quite positive. For example, Colorado, Minnesota and Oregon extended in-state tuition benefits to unauthorized immigrant students. As of this writing, 15 states now offer this benefit. Other states took up driver’s license eligibility, beginning with California in the fall of 2012, and Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maryland, Maine, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont in 2013.
What’s going on in New York thus far in 2013? As of June 30, 2013, our state legislature considered four pieces of immigration-related legislation, three of which were passed.
First, the controversial Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement Act (commonly known as the “New York SAFE Act”) amended gun licensing restrictions to include the consideration of citizenship or immigrant status (i.e., generally preventing the issuance or renewal of a license under the act to an alien not legally or lawfully in the United States).
Within the state budget, there were two immigration-related provisions. First, there was a provision which related to an electronic information sharing system that allows for the exchange of criminal history records for noncriminal justice purposes authorized by federal or state law, and defines noncriminal justice matters to include the use of criminal history records for purposes other than criminal justice matters, including immigration and naturalization matters. The state budget also included a provision which amended eligibility for unemployment benefits for illegal aliens; that is, illegal aliens or immigrants working without legal permission cannot obtain unemployment benefits.
By line item veto, Governor Cuomo vetoed a provision in the state budget which would have included funds for language classes for limited English proficient and immigrant students.
The NCSL also reported that the largest spike in immigration-related activity at the state level was in passage of non-legislative resolutions. That is, 31 states adopted 231 resolutions covering a myriad of issue areas. Twenty five sought action from Congress or the Obama Administration, including eight resolutions related to passing CIR. Others asked Congress to reauthorize the Violence Against Women Act (which it did), among other important areas.
Once again, the fact that the states are passing their own immigration related laws and resolutions is proof positive that our immigration system is broken at the federal level, and CIR is desperately needed. The Senate has already spoken. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte recently was quoted as saying that congressional fights over Syria and the debt limit “should not deter us from getting to [immigration] as soon as possible.” He said his committee and others have already passed smaller immigration bills relating to border security, internal enforcement, guest workers, and high-tech visas, and there could be votes on these measures as soon as October. Notably, there’s still no path to citizenship (or even a lawful immigration status) in the House bills that have passed for the eleven to thirteen million undocumented immigrants in the United States. I guess we’ll have to continue to wait and see what happens.