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Standing Up to the Feds on Immigration

Last summer, just as higher temperatures set in, immigration policy-making at the state level also heated up. With still no comprehensive, federal immigration reform happening, this year looks to be even hotter than last.

What do Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia have in common? What about Illinois, New York and Massachusetts? These two triads have taken bold--but contrasting--stances related to their immigrant populations. The first three, citing federal inaction, have passed tough laws to “crack down” on illegal immigration, beginning with Arizona last year. Last month, Georgia’s governor signed a similar bill into law. And Thursday, Alabama followed suit with the toughest law yet, “out-toughing” Arizona’s, which had claimed to be the toughest at the time. All three of these laws face legal challenges.

The second triad is also getting itself into hot water. Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts have thumbed their nose at the federal government’s immigration policy in a different way: by declaring their state a non-participant in the Secure Communities program. This program, intended to catch serious criminals who are in the country illegally by means of a shared fingerprint database, has come under increased criticism for its outcomes: deporting mostly non-criminals and eroding trust between local police and the immigrant community, leading some to call it “insecure communities.” Colorado and California are also considering opting out.

Every state in the union has been under pressure to do something related to immigration. But why have Alabama, Arizona, and Georgia sought to enforce immigration law more strictly than the federal government while Illinois, New York, and Massachusetts less so? The most obvious explanation is demographic. The first three states experienced very fast growth in their immigrant populations over the last decade and are fairly new destinations for immigrants. On the other hand, New York, Illinois (think Chicago), and Massachusetts have long histories as immigrant-receiving places. Not surprisingly, the pace of immigrant growth in these states over the last decade was much slower. 

If demographics are destiny, we might expect South Carolina--the state with the fastest rate of immigrant growth over the past decade--to have passed a “crackdown” law. And in fact, they did, in 2008, when they claimed to “out-tough” state laws in Oklahoma, Georgia, Arizona, and Colorado. More recently, bills to tweak the South Carolina law to align with a recent Supreme Court ruling have passed both state legislative chambers, but the Senate ran out of time to reconcile the two versions before their legislative session ended Thursday. They’ll return for a special session on June 14 to finish the job. Stay tuned. The summer of toughness is just heating up.