State lawmakers typically share the same attitude when it comes to Congress: Stay out of our business -- that is, unless you want to give us more money. But one area in which they don't share that attitude is illegal immigration. State representatives across the country are urging Washington to pass legislation addressing it.
Congress hasn't passed major legislation addressing immigration since 1986, when it made it illegal for employers to knowingly hire undocumented workers, says Virginia state Sen. John Watkins.
President George W. Bush tried, unsuccessfully, to address the subject in 2007 with a bill that would have provided a legal pathway to citizenship for millions of illegal immigrants while also increasing border enforcement. With Washington mired in partisan debate almost exclusively focused on deficit reduction, the issue isn't gaining much steam at the federal level right now, despite President Obama’s efforts.
So states, increasingly frustrated with the lack of progress at the federal level, have started tackling the problem themselves. But that might not be the best approach, state lawmakers said.
Already this year, state legislatures have considered nearly 1,600 bills and resolutions addressing immigrants and refugees, according to a new study by NCSL. Since the start of 2007, they've considered more than 7,300. This year alone, states enacted 246 provisions related to immigration.
"We feel like we're in limbo without federal action," said Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos. "Our interest is to find a quick resolution that can only come from the federal government."
But, Watkins says, laws like the one in Arizona that requires law enforcement officials to verify the status of undocumented workers may be sending the wrong message to federal lawmakers. He worries that the law, as well as similar laws in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah, are signaling to Washington that states are willing to take on the responsibility -- and costs -- of addressing the issue. That shouldn't be the case, he argues.
The new state laws passed in 2011 address nearly every facet of immigration, including how states should handle identification for undocumented immigrants, whether employers must use the federal E-Verify system to ensure the legal status of employees and whether schools must verify students' immigration status. Some of the laws expand rights for immigrants, such as efforts in Maryland and Connecticut to grant in-state tuition to unauthorized immigrants.
Watkins and Santos want federal lawmakers to address immigration, in part, because their colleagues' own legislation has questionable legal status. The Arizona-like laws calling for state and local law enforcement to uphold federal immigration laws have been challenged in court. Meanwhile, state lawmakers say, the costs of immigration -- be it crime, in some cases, or providing social services and schooling in others -- are hurting finances at a time when they're already struggling.