Diane Rehm Show: Debating State Immigration Measures

Congress shows little sign of taking up comprehensive immigration reform any time soon, but illegal immigration remains a hot topic in state legislatures, and the issue shows no sign of going away. According to the Christian Science Monitor, by the end of this year, as many as 1,400 immigration-related bills will have been introduced in state legislatures across the country (See State Illegal Immigration Laws: What Have They Accomplished? by Aaron Couch, Christian Science Monitor, 23.Mar.2011.), and last year 208 such measures passed. (See: States Look at Immigration Reform, The Diane Rehm Show, National Public Radio, 31.Mar.2011.)

Diane Rehm spoke with four prominent observers of the immigrant policy world, including: Mark Shurtleff, Attorney General of Utah, which just passed a moderate immigration bill, one that split the difference between enforcement and a modus vivendi with the undocumented workers relied on by his state’s economy; Frank Sharry, of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant advocacy group; Dan Stein, of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which seeks to drastically restrict immigration; and Julia Preston, who covers immigration for the New York Times. In a wide-ranging conversation on the politics and policy of immigration law, the panel talked about the differences between Arizona’s and Utah’s approaches to illegal immigration, and discussed some of the more drastic expedients that have bubbled to the surface of the national debate – like restricting the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship, a move that is gathering support among immigration restrictionists.

The question lurking behind all of these discussions is not so much whether these state immigration laws will pass constitutional muster – they won’t, except for measures that carefully avoid trespassing on federal turf – but how soon they will be nullified in court. Why bother with these measures at all, then? Two of the panelists suggested that state immigration legislation, even if doomed to failure, sends important signals to Congress about the need for a national solution to our immigration problems, and may help to shape whatever legislation eventually emerges on Capitol Hill. According to Frank Sharry, Utah’s approach sends just such a signal to those in Congress who otherwise might have seen the Arizona model as the only one that mattered:

Certainly, it’s important politically in that it sends a message. I mean, this is a ruby red conservative state that said, ‘We’re not Arizona; we’re not going to’ take this confrontational approach, try to usurp federal authority and put a target on the back of the 30 percent of the population that’s Latino in Arizona, which resulted in a huge loss of business, tremendous black eye for the state, law enforcement upset. […] What I find most important about it, though, quite frankly, is that it’s a real wakeup call for Washington. It’s saying, you know what? We’re out here trying to figure out what to do. It really doesn’t make sense to end up with a 50-state patchwork of immigration policies.

Beyond state legislation that penalizes or regulates illegal immigration, some states are considering versions of the DREAM Act that would extend in-state tuition benefits to illegal immigrants who were brought here as children. One place to watch is Maryland. Down in Annapolis, the state legislative session is winding down, and adjournment sine die is expected by April 11th. Advocates on both sides of the immigration debate are lobbying heavily around a Maryland version of the DREAM Act. The Maryland bill would provide in-state tuition to illegal immigrants who were brought here as children, and went to high school here for at least three years, provided that their parents or guardians filed state income tax returns during that time, or had state taxes withheld from their pay. (See In-State Tuition for Md. Illegal Immigrants on Table, by David Hill, Washington Times, 29.Mar.2011.)

The Maryland State Senate passed the measure on March 14th, with an amendment that would restrict availability of the in-state tuition rate to qualified illegal immigrants studying at community colleges; such students could continue to get the in-state tuition rate at Maryland’s four-year colleges only after graduating from a Maryland community college. The question in Maryland is whether the House will pass the measure before it adjourns for the year. Either way, the decision will send a signal to Congress about the direction states are willing to go in handling their illegal immigrant populations: a more generous direction, or a more punitive one. Stay tuned.

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.