States tackle immigration as Congress lags

Washington lawmaker co-chair of national task force addressing issue

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Immigrants coming to the United States increasingly face a distinctive choice: Live in Red America, where laws clamping down on services to those in the country illegally are winning support, or Blue America, where life is a little easier for them.

While comprehensive immigration reform languished in Congress last year, Republicans and Democrats in 45 state legislatures took decisive action to revise their own laws.

"We are still waiting for the federal government to fix the immigration system," said Washington state Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat and co-chairman of the National Conference of State Legislatures' immigration task force. "States are doing the best we can with the tools we have available to us. State legislators face fiscal challenges in education, health and law enforcement. To do nothing is not an option."

Republican-controlled states acted last year to tighten immigration laws after a 2012 Supreme Court decision struck down some law enforcement elements of Arizona's Senate Bill 1070. A handful of Democratic-controlled states jumped into the fray after the Obama administration offered a temporary reprieve, and permission to work, to some young illegal immigrants.

Immigrant rights activists said they were pleased by the progress made outside Washington. States "witnessed a significant increase in pro-immigrant activity" over the past year, the National Immigration Law Center wrote in an October report.

Tanya Broder, a senior attorney at the center and an author of the report, said, "The blue states are out in the front, adopting a wider range of measures." But, she said, Republican legislators are beginning to sponsor tuition and driver's license bills in states such as Virginia and Pennsylvania, where the GOP controls at least one chamber. "There are Republicans who are responding to the growing political power of (immigrant) communities," Broder said.

All told, 437 immigration-related bills were signed into law last year, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. And more legislation is likely to make progress in key states this year.

Focus shifts

In red states, the focus of immigration legislation has shifted in recent years as laws have run into court challenges. After the Supreme Court decision in 2012, five states — Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah — passed legislation similar to Arizona's measure. All five laws are subject to ongoing litigation.

Those challenges, and the prospect of comprehensive action in Congress, have slowed the wave of strict anti-illegal-immigration measures in state legislatures. In 2013, only Georgia passed laws amending the E-Verify program for employers and redefined eligibility for some public benefit programs.

The shift in focus has some immigration hard-liners worried. Most blame the Obama administration, which has relaxed some rules on deportations even as it has set records for the number of illegal immigrants sent out of the country.

Democratic-controlled states have allowed undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition at state-run colleges and universities. In 2013, Colorado, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oregon expanded in-state tuition access. Now 15 states have such "tuition equity" laws.