REPORT: Immigration Reform Was A Hot Topic For State Legislatures In 2019

April 20, 2020 by Gaspard Le Dem
A mother comforts her crying child while joining over 200 asylum seekers in the parking lot of an immigration check-point in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico on Aug. 1, 2019. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

WASHINGTON – Congress made little progress on immigration reform last year, but state legislatures are keeping the ball rolling.

Nearly every U.S. state passed legislation related to immigration in 2019, according to a report by the National Council on State Legislatures, a bipartisan organization that researches state legislation.

In total, 45 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico enacted 181 immigration laws in 2019, a 3 percent increase from the previous year, the report found.

The legislation tackled a wide range of immigration issues, from voter registration in Arkansas to human trafficking in Texas.

Many of the new laws — around 25 percent — were budget and appropriations measures that authorized funding for services like immigration enforcement, English literacy classes, and migrant and refugee services.

In California, budget law AB 74 allocated funding for legal services to unaccompanied and undocumented minors, like mental health assessments for children applying for visas.

South Carolina, in contrast, passed a law that ensures no state funds will assist the U.S. Refugee Resettlement Program unless approved by local counties.

State collaboration with federal law enforcement, such as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency, was also at stake in several states, with 19 percent of laws addressing the issue, according to the report. 

In California, Appropriations Bill 1563 prohibited state law enforcement from sharing information on a person’s citizenship for the purpose of immigration enforcement. Florida took the opposite approach by banning state agencies from enacting “sanctuary” policies — laws that limit a state’s ability to collaborate with federal immigration enforcement.

Questions of employment eligibility for immigrants were also frequently addressed in state legislatures, with 15 states enacting laws on the subject. Arkansas allowed recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to receive nursing licenses. 

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania prohibited the construction industry from hiring unauthorized employees, and required the use of E-Verify, an online federal service that checks a person’s employment eligibility.

Another hot topic for state legislatures was the 2020 census, with eight states, including California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Illinois and Rhode Island, passing laws that pushed for an accurate count of immigrant communities. Colorado and Massachusetts, for example, funded outreach programs to count hard-to-reach immigrant communities. 

But states differed on this topic as well. While Montana adopted a resolution asking Congress to include a citizenship question in the census, Nevada passed a resolution opposing the citizenship question.

The number of immigration laws passed by state legislatures has surged since America’s last presidential election, from 70 bills in 2016 to 181 in 2019, according to data from the report.

The last successful push by Congress to overhaul national immigration laws was in 1986 with the passage of the Immigration Reform and Control Act (IRCA). The legislation, supported by then-President Ronald Reagan, made it illegal to knowingly hire undocumented workers and established fines for employers who did so.

While the measure sought to curb illegal immigration, it largely failed to do so. Since 1990, the number of unauthorized immigrants has tripled, rising from 3.5 million to 10.5 million in 2017, according to data from the Pew Research Center.

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