State Immigration Laws: A Growing Trend, Despite Problems

It is getting increasingly difficult to keep track of all the immigration bills now under consideration at statehouses across the country. Arizona may claim the dubious distinction of having done it first, but several other states – 37 at last count, according to ABC News – are working on “tougher immigration bills” that would push immigration enforcement down to the state and local level. (See Immigration Wars: More States Looking at Arizona-Style Laws, by Huma Khan, ABC News, March 4, 2011.) According to ABC News, twenty-four of these bills are based on Arizona’s now-infamous S.B. 1070 – the one that allows police to check the immigration papers of anyone they encounter during routine stop, if they have reasonable suspicion that the person may be undocumented. Civil rights activists complain that this enshrines racial profiling as official state policy.

ABC News reports that “more than 100 immigration-related bills are pending in the Texas legislature alone, including those that would give state and local police officers the authority to enforce federal immigration laws, make English the official language and prevent undocumented students from getting in-state tuition and scholarships.” However, as ABC News notes, there is far from universal agreement as to whether state legislatures should be focusing on immigration enforcement to this extent – or at all – given the difficult economic situation and catastrophic budgetary constraints most states face right now. Critics ask whether it’s really worth spending time and money on legislation that stands more than a fair chance of being invalidated on constitutional grounds; after all, immigration regulation is a federal prerogative.

One wonders whether the practical problems of implementation were top-of-mind as state legislators scramble for quick fixes to the immigration problem. For example, some school administrators in Arizona are worrying aloud about the potential burdens of complying with yet another draconian immigration measure put forth by State Senator Russell Pearce – the man who gave us S.B. 1070. (See Administrators: SB 1611 Places Unnecessary Burdens on Schools, by Claire Doan, KGUN9 News (Tucson), 01.Mar.2011.) According to KGUN9 News, S.B. 1611 would require Arizona schools “to ask for documentation of legal status from students during enrollment,” and “to report the information to local law enforcement.” The story cites objections from school administrators who are concerned about the burdens of compliance, “especially at a time when schools are already understaffed and under-funded.”

Local police forces are not too eager to take on federal immigration enforcement duties, either, according to a new study released by the Police Executive Research Forum; the New York Times reports that “[d]ozens of police department commanders who participated in the report recommended that local officers should be explicitly prohibited from arresting people solely because of their immigration status, and should have orders to protect victims and witnesses regardless of their status.” (See Police Chiefs Wary of Immigration Role, by Julia Preston, New York Times, 03.Mar.2011.) The Times said many police executives fear that aggressive local enforcement of immigration laws will drive a wedge between police and immigrant communities, to the detriment of public safety.

Not every jurisdiction is taking a hardline on immigrants, however. This week, the Maryland state legislature is expected to vote on a bill to extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants studying at public colleges and universities. (See Senate to Take up Tuition Break for Undocumented Students, by Anne Linskey, Baltimore Sun, 06.Mar.2011.) The bill is still controversial, and it remains to be seen whether it will eventually become law; if it does, it will be the rare exception in this year of Arizona copycat bills.

Disclaimer: The information provided here is of a general nature and may not apply to any specific or particular circumstance. It is not to be construed as legal advice nor presumed indefinitely up to date.