5/17 Americas Society/Council of the Americas – States Take Steps on Immigration amid Obama’s Calls for Reform

States Take Steps on Immigration amid Obama’s Calls for Reform.

Roque Planas
May 17, 2011

Georgia Governor Nathan Dale signs an immigration law that cracks down on undocumented workers as state legislator and bill co-sponsor Matt Ramsey looks on. (AP Photo)

When U.S. President Barack Obama delivered a speech calling for comprehensive immigration reform in El Paso on May 10, he framed the issue as a moral imperative that makes economic sense. “Look at Intel and Google and Yahoo and eBay—these are great American companies that have created countless jobs and helped us lead the world in high-tech industries. Every one was founded by an immigrant,” Obama said in the speech. The outlines of his proposal—ramping up border security, creating a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants already here, reforming the legal immigration system to attract immigrants with education and skills, and punishing business that exploit the undocumented—are not new. Obama said as much several times this week, calling for immigration reform at a meeting with high profile stakeholders April 19, another one with Hispanic celebrities and journalists on April 28, and at the commencement speech of Miami Dade Community College. But despite Obama’s high-profile moves, exasperated state governments continue to take immigration policy into their own hands.

Many question how hard Obama will really push for immigration reform. An editorial published in The Boston Globe argued that Obama needs to accompany his meetings and speeches with legislation and lobbying. “Simply asking Americans to ‘add your voices to the debate’ won’t get the job done,” The Globe’s editorial board wrote. “The president needs to lead Congress and the country by proposing legislation and then fighting for it.” Some view Obama as having passed the buck, opening the door for reform opponents to say he is more interested in mobilizing the Hispanic vote than fixing what he refers to as the “broken immigration system.” “It’s disappointing that the only time border security and immigration reform get President Obama’s attention is when he is campaigning,” Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) said in statement released in anticipation of Obama’s El Paso speech.

The day after Obama’s immigration speech, Senate Democrats reintroduced the DREAM Act, a law that would grant a path to citizenship for qualified undocumented youth who serve in the military or attend college. The DREAM Act has a slim chance of passing—the legislation failed last year during the lame-duck session, when Democrats controlled both Houses of Congress. To make it palatable to legislators more interested in immigration enforcement than reform, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV) suggested last week attaching the DREAM Act as a rider to a bill requiring employers to use E-Verify to confirm that employees are allowed to work in the United States. But some DREAM Act supporters have questioned the political motives behind giving that law another go just as campaigning for the 2012 election is winding up.

In the absence of comprehensive immigration reform, states are taking the lead. Georgia’s Governor Nathan Deal signed a law on Friday modeled partly on Arizona’s controversial SB 1070. The Georgia law gives state police more authority to question the suspects police detain about their immigration status and obligates large agribusinesses to use E-Verify. Several other states have considered implementing laws similar to Arizona’s, but they face resistance from the federal government and business groups who say the laws will incur heavy legal and economic costs. In July 2010, a federal judge slapped an injunction on the most controversial provisions of the Arizona law and, in April, the decision was upheld by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Arizona Governor Jan Brewer says she will appeal the case to the Supreme Court. A law passed last week by Utah’s legislature would require police to check the immigration status of those who commit felonies faced a federal challenge within 14 hours. A similar bill aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration failed in the Florida legislature on May 6, after the session expired without reaching an agreement.

By the same token, some states are passing legislation aimed at providing relief for undocumented immigrants in the absence of reform at the federal level. Maryland’s state legislature, for example, just approved a law on May 10 allowing undocumented students to pay in-state tuition at public colleges. The Connecticut House just passed a similar law. Governor Pat Quinn told Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) last week that the state would opt out of Secure Communities—a federal program that requires local law enforcement to check fingerprints of those they arrest against an ICE database. The purpose behind the program is to target undocumented immigrants who have committed serious crimes for deportation, but Quinn said that over a third of those deported from his state under Secure Communities were never convicted of a crime.

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