Opinion

The Immigration Debate We're Not Having

No matter what Washington does, it will fall to the states and localities to address the social, fiscal, and economic effects. We need to talk about how that will play out. 

The push for immigration reform certainly is making headlines and fostering spirited debate, but what is being overlooked in our national discussion is the critical role state and local governments play in managing the influx of new arrivals—legal and unauthorized.

In 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed that it is the role of the federal government to decide whom the country admits, how long they stay, and the circumstances under which they’re removed. But this leaves a considerable role for states and localities to manage the complex education, language, health, and public-safety issues that come with immigration.

Some states with a history of handling immigrant arrivals, notably California, New York, and Texas, have been integrating them for many years.  But for other states with new and quickly growing immigrant populations, managing these challenges is a more recent development. These states (see accompanying map) are waking up to the social, fiscal, and economic effects of immigration—and sometimes attempting to respond without the benefit of past experience and good data about what works or doesn’t.

In 1990, about 20 million people, nearly 8 percent of the U.S. population, were foreign-born.  Today that number is around 40 million, accounting for approximately 13 percent of the population and including about 11 million unauthorized immigrants. And unlike in decades past, there now are substantial foreign-born populations in nearly all 50 states and the District of Columbia.

Whether states have long-standing or new immigrant communities, state laws and policies for dealing with them differ widely. Some laws focus on controlling immigration by penalizing employers who hire unauthorized workers or requiring police to check the status of people they believe may not be here legally. Other laws focus on integrating immigrants into communities regardless of status, and provide drivers’ licenses, in-state college tuition, health care, and other services.

States and localities also are involved in providing English classes to non-native speakers. In some jurisdictions, law-enforcement agencies offer language or cultural sensitivity training to officers, reasoning that it is in the community's interest to encourage all residents to report crimes and testify in court.

Yet federal and state laws often overlap. Changes in federal treatment of immigrants, for example, can affect state and local governments. Consider the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which offers a two-year reprieve from deportation for certain unauthorized people who were brought here as children and meet other eligibility criteria. For young immigrants, obtaining school records is one of the steps required to prove they qualify for the program.  But not all jurisdictions were ready for the flood of requests. California schools faced a particularly large workload, and localities including Fresno, Los Angeles, and San Diego put new procedures in place or partnered with community groups to solve the problem. Localities with smaller immigrant populations also found innovative solutions. Des Moines, Iowa, for instance, set up a website specifically to help immigrant students and their families with the paperwork.

Comprehensive immigration reform that includes enhanced enforcement and legalizes certain unauthorized immigrants would entail both costs and benefits for states and localities. If additional newly legalized residents are incorporated into the American mainstream and the formal economy, then there will likely be additional tax revenue, new talent, and greater cultural diversity, but also possibly increased demand for social services. 

The immigration debate is an emotional one. Myths and misinformation abound. That, along with America’s changing demographics, calls for a deliberative, fact-based public discussion about immigration. There is also a need for dialogue between states and the federal government alongside solid research about how federal, state, and local immigration policies intersect. The bottom-line question for governments at all levels: If comprehensive immigration reform is enacted, are they prepared?

Published in Governing magazine's Management Insights column, October 2, 2013.

Projects:
Immigration and the States Project
States:
National
Experts:
Sue Urahn
 
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