Immigration: The Legislative Landscape

The year began with lots of state lawmakers talking about tough new immigration laws. So what exactly happened? In a lot of places, the answer ...
by | July 3, 2008

The year began with lots of state lawmakers talking about tough new immigration laws. So what exactly happened?

In a lot of places, the answer is not much. The 2007 legislative elections in Virginia focused heavily on immigration, but the bills that passed this year were relatively minor. Kansas thought about imitating the "toughest in the nation" law of Oklahoma, its neighbor to the South, but didn't act.

Alabama talked a lot, but did nothing. Indiana seemed on the brink of passing a major bill, but it died in a conference committee.

So four fairly conservative legislatures looked hard at immigration crackdowns and decided not to act. Many other states, of course, never seriously considered the type of legislation that has passed previously in Georgia, Colorado and Arizona, in addition to Oklahoma.

All of that might lead you to conclude that the policy debate over immigration is as much of a dud as the political debate over immigration.

I don't think that's the right conclusion, however. While the pace of change on immigration policy is slow, the direction is clear.

Utah gained a reputation a few years ago as an immigrant-friendly state by offering in-state tuition at colleges and driver cards to people who are in the country illegally. But this year the state reversed course, approving a law to require government agencies and contractors to use E-Verify -- a federal database designed to screen illegal workers.

The presence of E-Verify in an immigration bill is a sign to me that it's an important one. Unlike raising penalties for hiring undocumented workers, for example, E-Verify actually requires people to do something.

South Carolina passed an even more stringent immigration bill making the Palmetto state the latest to claim it has the toughest law in the country. Missouri also approved significant legislation.

Perhaps just as significant: None of the states that approved crackdown in the past have backed down. There was a lot of talk about the cost to enforcement, businesses being adversely affected, legal challenges, etc., but so far there haven't been any repeals of the laws, just some tweaks in Arizona.

So where does that leave the overall picture? Conservative states (but, so far, only conservative states) are slowly adopting the position of most rank-and-file conservatives: That illegal immigration is major problem that government -- even state and local government -- ought to combat.

(Many thanks to Governing editorial assistant Brendan Schlauch for research help with this post.)

Josh Goodman
Josh Goodman  |  Former Staff Writer

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