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State Immigration Policies Gone Wild

In the absence of federal immigration reform, state governments have taken up immigration policymaking with remarkable zeal. In 2010, every state in session considered immigration laws and resolutions. In fact, the National Conference of State Legislatures finds that states passed a whopping 346 laws and resolutions addressing immigration issues. And last month alone, Fox News reported that states introduced more than 600 immigration measures.

On the positive end, several laws supported immigrant integration by funding refugee resettlement and naturalization assistance, or offering in-state tuition to undocumented youth. Of course, many other state legislatures have taken up restrictive and in some cases ridiculous immigration policies. Many laws focus on giving local police immigration enforcement powers in addition to their primary duties, while others impose voter ID schemes or enact employer verification requirements. The worst state laws attempt to turn public institutions into satellite ICE offices.

In Arizona, Republican lawmakers have proposed a bill that would force hospitals to verify whether a patient is in the country legally. Let’s hope that early opposition from doctors, medical professionals and immigrant advocates prevents this foolish policy from passing. But the fact that this is even on the table is frightening. In Virginia, the Democratic-led state senate successfully held off a spate of anti-immigrant laws, including one that would require local school boards to tally children “who could not provide a birth certificate or enrolled in English as a Second Language courses.”

It’s hard to figure out the legislative intent behind these measures. Do Arizona lawmakers really want to scare undocumented immigrants away from seeking treatment for contagious diseases? Do Virginia’s elected officials really want to discourage immigrant children from attending school? I think any legislator interested in a healthy or educated populace would not. But it seems that nothing is off-limits in the immigration debate. As one Virginia Democrat put it, "What's next -- they're going to require the grocery stores to find out if you're here legally before you can buy food?"

Too often, immigration hard-liners introduce bills intended to save money by targeting or identifying undocumented immigrants. In practice, however, restrictive policies end up draining public budgets and marginalizing legal immigrants in the process.

A powerful New York Times story highlights the impact of a recent Virginia policy that effectively cut off hundreds of legal immigrants from obtaining driver’s licenses. Under the law, federally-issued work permits were no longer sufficient proof of residence needed to get a license. The policy shift cost one Tunisian man his limousine business. The article goes on to describe the various remedies state officials used to help legal immigrants who were wrongly denied driver’s licenses—all at the taxpayers’ expense.

Supporters of local immigration crackdowns should know that verifying an individual’s immigration status is not as easy as it sounds. Immigration law is an exceedingly complex field, wherein a person’s right to stay in the country comes down to one piece of paper or ruling from a federal judge. Hospital workers or teachers shouldn’t be trained to recognize these documents or otherwise participate in half-baked immigration enforcement schemes. This would waste time and resources better used to assist the general public.

As we wait for Congress to take on immigration reform that addresses undocumented immigration, our elected officials should stop targeting immigrants and their families, and instead focus their energies on crafting laws that truly serve the public interest.

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Posted at 1:29 PM, Feb 18, 2011 in Immigration | Politics | States | public services
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