Immigration shift: As Obama, Romney court Hispanics, are state lawmakers doing the same?


Immigration is in the headlines this week, with President Barack Obama and his Republican rival, Mitt Romney, aggressively courting the Hispanic vote in back-to-back addresses to a conference of Latino politicians and the Supreme Court expected to rule next week on a controversial Arizona law aimed at illegal immigrants.

Those developments reflect a volatile debate that permeates deep into the nation's political fabric. 

Scout, Sunlight's new issue alert service that tracks legislation and issues across the Congressional Record, the Federal Register and all 50 state legislatures, shows that state lawmakers have introduced hundreds of bills relating to immigration since the beginning of this year. But on the state, as on the national level, the tone may be shifting.

The Supreme Court is expected to decide as early as next week on the Justice Department's constitutional challenge to a 2010 Arizona law that authorizes local law enforcement officials to require persons suspected of being illegal immigrants to provide proof of legal status. Five other states have passed similar laws, which have been at least partially blocked in courts. 

Romney this week appeared to move from support of such measures — during the Republican primary, he expressed support for measures designed to encourage illegal immigrants to "self-deport" — to a more centrist tone before the National Association of Latino Elected Officials. Obama, meanwhile, who is set to address the same group Friday, got a boost with Latino voters after announcing last week hat his administration will no longer deport undocumented youths brought to the United States as children so long as they are working towards a higher education, or serve in the military and do not have a criminal record.

A Scout search shows that states have continued to address immigration with bills ranging from measures providing funding for refugee services and access to in-state tuition and financial aid to those that penalize employers who hire illegal immigrants and limit food stamps for households where undocumented immigrants reside. 

"We have a tale of two state houses here," said Tanya Broder, a senior attorney with the National Immigration Law Center, which advocates for comprehensive reform that leads towards legal status. There are states like Arizona and Alabama and other red states that "are looking to crack down on immigrants." Then there are those like California, New York and Illinois–with long traditions of immigrants living there–and a few other Midwestern states that are advancing pro-immigration measures, she said.

A Scout search of legislation introduced in just the past few months illustrates this tale of two mindsets. In May Alabama's House Bill 658 became law, which largely kept intact a controversial Arizona-style immigration law passed last year and added a new provision requiring the state to put the names of undocumented immigrants who appear in court online. Tennessee passed a law in May that requiring stricter immigration status verification for public benefits programs. 

Ira Mehlman, a spokesman for the Federation of American Immigration Reform, a group that advocates for limiting immigration, said that Missouri, Kansas and a number of Southern states are poised to implement measures similar to the Arizona law if the Supreme Court validates it. The "turning point will come in the next week or so," he said. 

In an analysis of the bills active in the first quarter of 2012, the non-partisan National Conference of State Legislatures found 44 percent fewer bills relating to immigrants and refugees were introduced and 30 percent fewer laws passed as compared to the same period in 2011. 

Broder sees a growing wave of legislation benefiting immigrants. Scout picked up a number of recent pro-immigrant bills–the District of Columbia passed a law saying it would not comply with requests from the federal government to hold a certain arrested immigrants in custody. A similar bill was introduced in the New York Assembly recently. States may be having second thoughts about Arizona-style immigration measures, not only because of the constitutional challenges, but because of the potential social cost, according to Broder.

"The fear and consequences generated by these laws prevents families from taking their children to school and seeking services they need, including citizens and documented immigrants," Broder said. She added that a number of measures aimed at encouraging immigrants to attend school have gained ground this year.

According to Broder, virtually all of the Arizona and Alabama-inspired measures considered this year have failed to pass. Similar bills in five other states—Missouri, Kansas, Rhode Island, Mississippi and West Virginia have failed or stalled this year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Even Georgia, which passed copycat legislation in 2011 to Arizona's SB 1070, has not had anti-immigrant rights bills advance this year. Instead, it enacted a law in March that provides $9 million in federal funds to refugee programs.

Other states are promoting immigrants' rights. In California, a state that already provides in-state tuition to certain undocumented immigrants, a bill passed the Assembly to extend those rights this session.  In Colorado, a bill allowing in-state tuition to certain students went further in the legislative process than it ever had before. A New York bill providing state financial aid to certain undocumented immigrants gained built "strong and diverse support," Broder wrote in an email. 

Mehlman does not think these pro-immigrant bills represent a new trend. "These have happened in states that have already gone the extra mile for illegal immigrants," he said.