Josh Goodman is a former staff writer for GOVERNING..E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick said recently that he's studying whether he can offer illegal immigrants in-state tuition without legislative approval. A few years ago that wouldn't have been big news, but now it is.
Now that immigration is the hot-button issue de jour, it's strange to look back at what was happening five years ago. Some states were doing offering in-state tuition to undocumented students, some weren't, but rarely were the bills the subject of huge controversy.
It wasn't just Democratic states that approved the laws -- which typically limited the group of eligible immigrants based on factors such as how long they had attended school in the state, whether their parents paid taxes and whether they were trying to legalize their status. Texas, Utah, Oklahoma and Kansas all approved the tuition break legislation in the 2001-2004 timeframe.
More remarkably, only one member of the Texas House of Representatives voted against the proposal. I asked a Texas legislator about this several years ago and he said that lawmakers were probably just following instructions from leadership and weren't really paying attention to what was in the bill.
So, the vote was akin to honoring the nine-banded armadillo as the official state armadillo. You couldn't get a more cold-button issue.
The biggest shift that's occurred in state-level immigration policy over the past few years hasn't been major crackdowns on illegal immigrants (although crackdowns are occurring in a few states such as Oklahoma, Georgia and Arizona).
Instead, the shift is that immigrant-friendly legislation has screeched to a halt. Every immigration-related policy decision faces such heightened scrutiny that, even in Democratic states, what would have been little more than an armadillo vote a few years ago, now might end up as a national political feeding frenzy. That's what Eliot Spitzer found out last year, with his ill-fated plan to allow illegal residents to obtain drivers' licenses.
There's one factor that mitigates the risk for Patrick: He, like Spitzer, isn't up for reelection until 2010. By then, we may have a new hot-button issue.
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