It’s a hot potato in Washington, but immigration fervor cools in the states

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The immigration debate may be ramping up in Washington but it’s chilled in the states, where the crackdown fervor of two years ago has given way to a cautious approach amid changing political currents and court decisions.

Gone is the appetite for broad “omnibus” bills such as Arizona’s 2011 law that instituted state criminal penalties for illegal immigration. Instead, it’s immigrant-rights groups that are now on the offensive, passing a laws granting in-state college tuition rates to illegal immigrants in Colorado and driver’s licenses to illegal immigrants in Illinois.

“There has been a general reaction by folks to the impact that the Latino vote had in November — that people are thinking twice about the actions they take,” said Arturo Vargas, executive director of the National Association of Latino Elected and Appointed Officials. “Most of these pieces of legislation had been supported by Republican legislators, and I think people are thinking twice about whether this is a strategy the party wants to pursue.”

Just two years ago, the momentum was decidedly on the other side.

Congress was stalemated, leaving conservative states to push ahead with their own laws intended to get a handle on illegal immigration, which they said cost them hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially endangered safety. Plus, it appeared to be good politics in Republican primaries.

Arizona in 2007 pioneered a law requiring all businesses to use the government’s voluntary electronic worker verification system, then followed that up in 2011 with SB 1070, the law imposing state criminal penalties for illegal immigrants and requiring police to check the status of those they believed to be in the country illegally.

South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia and Indiana all passed similar laws.

The Supreme Court upheld the worker verification law in 2011 and last year issued a major ruling allowing the police checks to continue, though it struck down the state criminal penalties for illegal immigration.


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The court also warned it could revisit the police checks if the law is implemented in a discriminatory fashion.

Now, many states are waiting to see what the courts and Congress will do next.

Ann Morse, who runs the National Conference of State Legislatures’ immigrant policy project, said interest in immigration is still high at the state level, but there are no longer the big omnibus bills.

Some states are debating new verification requirements for state services or for voting.

But where there is clear momentum, it appears to be on the immigrant-advocacy side.

Colorado’s General Assembly passed a bill earlier this month granting illegal immigrants in-state tuition rates to state colleges, and lawmakers there introduced another bill to repeal a 2006 law requiring police to cooperate with federal immigration agents.

Other states have moved to grant driver’s licenses to the young adult illegal immigrants Mr. Obama gave tentative legal status last year.

Several Republican attorneys general told The Washington Times last month that they consider immigration a national issue and want to see Washington muster leadership.

“We have to look to the federal government to take the charge on immigration reform,” said Colorado Attorney General John W. Suthers. “The Arizona case and others are kind of mapping out what the states can do and what the federal government has to do.”

But Kris Kobach, the secretary of state in Kansas who was also a leading architect of Arizona’s crackdown law, said he still sees an appetite to act.

“I don’t think the atmosphere in the state legislatures has changed at all,” he said. “I think what we saw in 2011 and 2012 was the states that were the low-hanging fruit were already primed and ready to do something active. They’ve already taken steps, and are happy with those steps, and other states are moving to follow them.”

He called those new opportunities “second wave” states.

Mr. Kobach said the president’s move to grant legal status to illegal immigrant young adults last year was confusing for states, creating chaos about what other benefits they should be entitled to.

“The Obama administration, through its illegal executive amnesty, is trying to have it both ways. They recognize that they have no power to grant lawful immigration status to illegal aliens, yet at the same time they are trying to tell the states to go ahead and give these illegal aliens driver’s licenses,” said Mr. Kobach, the lead attorney on a lawsuit by federal immigration agents challenging the policy.

He said given Mr. Obama’s moves and the debate in Congress, state lawmakers who want to see a crackdown realize that the states are their only avenues for action.

“The events since the start of the year have made it clear to state leaders that the only serious efforts to enforce the law are going to be at the state level,” Mr. Kobach said.

He said his home state of Kansas could repeal its in-state tuition rates for illegal immigrants.

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