Numbers, Facts and Trends Shaping Your World

With Feds Stuck, States Tackle Immigration

by Daniel C. Vock, Staff Writer,

If you need any proof of how divided America is on immigration, look at its state capitols.

State lawmakers have taken widely divergent approaches to dealing with an influx of immigrants, including 11 million thought to be here illegally. Some states are rolling out welcome mats while others are slamming shut their doors.

For example, Oklahoma lawmakers signed off on a sweeping anti-illegal immigration law in 2007, responding to the 56,000 foreign-born residents who have come to the Sooner State since 2000 for jobs in meat-packing, construction and service industries. The new measure, which took effect Nov. 1, punishes employers who hire undocumented workers, gives police more tools to start deporting them and denies them state identification and benefits.

“Illegal aliens will not come to Oklahoma if there are no jobs. They will not stay if they don’t have welfare benefits. They will not want to come if they know they can be detained until they are deported,” said state Rep. Randy Terrill (R), the Oklahoma law’s chief proponent.


Meanwhile in Illinois, where 1.7 million of its 12.8 million residents were born abroad, state lawmakers repeatedly have sided with immigrants, especially the children. The state offers immigrant children subsidized health care and in-state tuition at public colleges. Last spring, lawmakers in Springfield invited a showdown with the federal government by barring companies from checking the immigration status of new workers with a federal database.

The two examples highlight a rough divide in how states have responded to the wave of newcomers that began swelling in the 1970s: States with large, long-established immigrant populations have been more accommodating than states now experiencing a surge for the first time.

Two-thirds of the country’s foreign-born population (legal and illegal) live in six states – California, New York, Texas, Florida, New Jersey and Illinois, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Policies there tend to be more immigrant-friendly.

“Illinois has had waves of immigrants continuously coming in for 100 years. Voters see this new wave of immigrants much like those that came before it. … It’s in the new magnet states that you see the biggest backlash,” said Nathan Newman, policy director for the Progressive States Network, a group that promotes liberal state policies.

Several of the states to pass wide-reaching measures to deter illegal immigration – including Arizona, Colorado, Georgia and Oklahoma – are new destination states that saw their immigrant population grow by at least a third since 2000.

State lawmakers have been thrust into the middle of the debate because of Congress’s failure to act. Twice in the last two years, efforts to overhaul the nation’s immigration laws fizzled. That means states are exploring ways to get involved with what remains primarily a responsibility of the federal government.

So, in 2007, Missouri lawmakers voted to bar illegal immigrants from becoming social workers, but Hawaii started letting undocumented children get state-supported health care.

All told, 46 states enacted 194 new immigration-related laws in 2007 – triple the number from the previous year, according to a tally by the National Conference of State Legislatures. A closer look shows laws restricting the rights or benefits of illegal immigrants outnumbered laws benefiting them by a 2-1 ratio, although roughly half did not deal specifically with illegal immigration.


This year’s activity leaves a patchwork of state policies across the country.Click the box for a complete listing of state laws targeting immigrants.

Some examples include:

  • Nine states will require at least some companies (usually state contractors) to use a federal database to verify that new hires are in the country legally. Arizona’s new law is the broadest because it applies to all employers. But one state, Illinois, prohibits companies from checking out new employees on the database.
  • Six states partner with federal authorities to enforce immigration laws, but four states (and most major cities) forbid the practice.
  • Six states passed laws since 2005 to cut off certain public benefits for illegal immigrants, but six others let undocumented children get taxpayer-subsidized health insurance.
  • Ten states allow undocumented students to receive in-state tuition at public colleges, with Nebraska becoming the latest to join in 2006.
  • Seven states let illegal immigrants get driver’s licenses, down from nine in mid-2006. However, Oregon will be dropping off the list in February. Maine and Michigan lawmakers are reconsidering their policies as well.

In addition, all 50 states have sent National Guard troops to the 1,954-mile border with Mexico since July 2006 to support the Border Patrol’s increased enforcement efforts there.

Immigration likely will remain a red-hot issue in 2008, both in statehouses and on the presidential campaign trail.

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