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With Congress stuck, some immigrant advocates go local

By Suzanne Monyak, CQ-Roll Call
Published: March 27, 2023, 6:02am

WASHINGTON — With Congress at an impasse on major federal immigration legislation, some advocates have turned to local legislatures to promote and push through bills that would give undocumented immigrants access to driver’s licenses, in-state college tuition and other services.

“Because Washington doesn’t work, because Washington is not capable of solving problems at the national level, then states, they have been trying to improve the lives of people,” said Juan Manuel Guzman, state advocacy director at immigrant advocacy group United We Dream.

But those local advocates also recently have ramped up their defenses against what several described as a rise in anti-immigrant proposed bills in Texas and other states ahead of next year’s presidential election.

The last time Congress passed legislation providing a path to citizenship for a large swath of the undocumented population was nearly 40 years ago. Current efforts to revise the nation’s immigration system have stalled amid disagreement over how to handle high levels of migration to the southwest border.

Federal inaction has left an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S., many of whom have no access to key services, including subsidized health care or retirement benefits, nor to a path to citizenship.

This has left states to pick up the slack. Rebecca Shi, executive director of the American Business Immigration Coalition, said advocates in states with undocumented residents are “trying to fill the gap” left open by Congress’ inaction.

“There has to be a solution, and if we can act on the local level, we will do that,” Shi said.

Dreamers waiting

It’s been more than a decade since the Obama administration rolled out the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which gives work permits and deportation protections to certain undocumented immigrants who came to the country as children, known as “Dreamers.”

The program, which does not lead to citizenship for recipients, was initially intended as a temporary stopgap measure for hundreds of thousands of undocumented immigrants who were raised in the U.S. and now have no way to fix their statuses.

But since then, Congress has tried and failed multiple times to pass a legislative solution for this population of immigrants, despite ongoing legal challenges that threaten to end the DACA program, which does not cover anyone who entered the country — or was born — after June 2007.

Only the federal government can grant work permits or deportation protections, which has prompted advocates to push for state policies that support immigrants in other ways.

“The last policy that we saw that was a victory for the whole community was obviously DACA, which right now is on life support. And Congress has repeatedly failed to pass a pathway for citizenship,” Guzman said. “The next battle is the states.”

The only immigration-related bill Congress has brought to the floor this year centered on one such local effort in the District of Columbia. The House passed a resolution to overturn a D.C. bill that would allow immigrants to vote in local elections, similar to what other cities have done, but the Senate did not take up the measure.

‘Marked progress’

State and local measures to give undocumented immigrants more access to certain benefits have gained steam. In November, Arizona voters approved a proposition that would allow high school students to qualify for in-state tuition, regardless of immigration status.

Massachusetts and Rhode Island have laws set to take effect this summer allowing undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. In Massachusetts, the state House voted to override the governor’s veto to advance that legislation.

The COVID-19 pandemic in particular fueled efforts to expand access to subsidized health care for undocumented immigrants.

In 2021, California became the first state to enact legislation expanding health care access for low-income residents regardless of immigration status. Advocates predict that campaigns will continue to ramp up to expand health care access for aging undocumented immigrants, who are not eligible for Social Security or other federal benefits.

According to a December report by the National Immigration Law Center, which examined state legislative action between 2012 and 2022, at least 23 states now offer in-state university tuition to undocumented students. Eighteen states either already or will soon offer driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants — up from just three states in 2012.

“To the extent that states have the power, or localities have the power, to improve the daily lives of their residents and to make sure that they feel comfortable engaging with government agencies and receiving what they need, then yes, we’ve seen marked progress at the state and local level,” said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney at NILC.

Democratic victories in November in states including Massachusetts, Vermont and Maryland could also open the door for measures to advance that help undocumented immigrants, the NILC report concludes.

On defense

As the Biden administration has faced heat for high numbers of migrants crossing the southwest border, local immigrant advocates have also increasingly found themselves playing defense as they push back against proposals in states like Florida and Texas that would strip away rights for immigrants.

A bill pending in Texas, known as HB 20, would create a state-run “Border Protection Unit” with the authority to oversee construction of border barriers and to “arrest, detain, and deter individuals crossing the border illegally.”

Texas officials have blamed the high numbers of migrants crossing the U.S.-Mexico border on the Biden administration’s immigration policies and argued that border states have unfairly borne the brunt of the problem.

The Texas Democratic Party has slammed the bill as a “Show Me Your Papers” state police force that would empower officers to arrest anyone they suspect to be undocumented migrants.

“This heinous bill, if passed, would do nothing to curb the crisis at our border — it would merely subject South Texans to constant state-mandated racial profiling and a level of big-brother police-state dystopia they could have never even imagined,” Texas Democratic Party Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa said in a March 10 news release.

Another bill proposed in the Texas State Senate this session would bar individuals who are citizens of China, Iran, North Korea or Russia from buying property in the state. The bill does not carve out an exemption for U.S. permanent residents or other legal visa holders.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, a Republican, has said he would sign the bill if it passed.

Mary Ibarra, political coordinator at the American Civil Liberties Union of Texas, said there is a “really high chance” that a version of HB 20 will make it into law.

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Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, a likely 2024 presidential contender, announced sprawling legislation last month that would block undocumented immigrants from receiving state IDs, invalidate any out-of-state licenses they may have and bar undocumented students from accessing in-state tuition rates.

It would also require hospitals to collect information about patients’ immigration statuses and submit reports about the cost of care for undocumented immigrants and heighten criminal penalties for transporting or housing undocumented immigrants.

Tessa Petit, co-executive director of the Florida Immigration Coalition, called DeSantis’ proposal the “worst bill that could happen.” She also said attacks against immigrants have increased in recent years.

“I think in the history of Florida, it’s the first time we’ve been under this much attack,” Petit said.

Ibarra described a similar trend in Texas, where Republican Gov. Rick Perry signed legislation into law more than 20 years ago that granted eligibility for in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants.

Ibarra said anti-immigrant proposals have been more prevalent since 2016, when Donald Trump was elected president after a campaign that heavily featured anti-immigrant rhetoric.

“I think the lack of action, proactive action, on the federal level has caused a lot of ideologies to be able to take rise,” Ibarra said. “Now it’s a popular thing for Republican governors to consolidate power, to use that as a talking point, and something that they think will get more votes for them.”