Immigration Reform Is Actually Happening – Just Not On Capitol Hill



California Gov. Jerry Brown signs a bill adding California to the growing list of states allowing immigrants living in the country illegally to obtain driver licenses. (AP Photo/City of Los Angeles)

Though comprehensive immigration reform has sputtered and stalled in Congress, many Democrats and activists have turned their attention away from the federal government and started focusing their efforts on the local level. This push has resulted in a number of pieces of local immigration reform legislation that have passed largely under the radar of the national debate. However, these laws have had dramatic effects and supporters argue they may inspire a wave of similar policies across the country.

Just this month New York City passed new legislation granting government ID cards to undocumented immigrants, joining cities like Oakland, New Haven, Trenton, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. Since last year, a number of localities — including California, Maryland, Connecticut, Illinois, New Mexico, Nevada, and Oregon — have passed legislation granting drivers licenses to undocumented immigrants, according to the National Immigration Law Center. And a small slew of states have passed their own versions of the DREAM Act, giving undocumented students in-state tuition assistance.

Maryland Gov. Martin O'Malley, a Democrat looking at a run for president, told Business Insider that, when it comes to immigration reform, "progress has become a metropolitan phenomenon."

"I think hopefully what will happen is the more states that pursue policies that are consistent with the longer arc of our American immigrant experience," O'Malley explained at a New York City pub last week. "The more of us that follow those policies, the easier it will become for our federal government to catch up."

According to the most recent numbers compiled by the National Conference of State Legislators, immigration-related legislation is accelerating at the local level. A total of 184 state immigration laws were enacted and 253 resolutions adopted in 2013 — a 64% increase over 2012, the report said. (This number includes both pro-immigration and anti-immigration measures.) Ann Morse, the NCSL program director who helped compile the report, said the upcoming 2014 numbers are on track to show similar trends.


O'Malley's office.

Gov. Martin O'Malley at an event with Latino workers.

For his part, O'Malley predicted immigration reform could follow a similar path to same-sex marriage, which has rapidly become legal in state after state.

"I think that the genius of our system is that there is some flexibility and some room for states to follow some different approaches. And if they turn out to be better approaches then we learn from each other, right?" he asked. "Eventually, the result is in terms of extending fuller rights to greater numbers."

O'Malley recently found himself in the center of the national immigration debate after he engaged in a high-profile back-and-forth with the White House over the influx of unaccompanied children who have crossed the Mexican border and been placed in crowded detention centers. In response, O'Malley criticized the detention centers while also accusing President Barack Obama's administration of sending the children it planned to deport back to "certain death" in violent Central American countries. The White House fired back at O'Malley, who was one of Obama's most dedicated surrogates during the 2012 presidential election, by reportedly leaking conversations between the governor and administration aides that were designed to make him look hypocritical on the issue.

Even with members of both parties describing the situation with the flood of children on the border as a humanitarian crisis, the White House's solution to the problem — $3.7 billion in emergency border spending — is currently stuck in the quagmire of congressional politics.

Federal comprehensive immigration reform legislation is in an even more intractable position. Though an immigration reform bill passed the Democratic-controlled Senate, anything that can be labeled "amnesty" meets steep opposition in the Republican-controlled House. A final nail in the coffin for the possibility of compromise on the issue came last month when Eric Cantor, the soon-to-be-former House Republican majority leader, lost a primary in a shocking upset fueled by his willingness to consider a path to citizenship for undocumented children. Faced with this gridlock, Obama is exploring what actions he can take unilaterally without congressional approval.

Local leaders, including New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, have directly cited federal inaction on immigration reform as motivation for them to seek their own solutions.

"In the absence of federal leadership on a host of issues, cities around the country are taking on the challenge of finding ways to create progressive change that helps all our residents, and then sharing ideas with each other, inspiring each other to action," de Blasio said as he signed a municipal ID card bill in July.

It's not only the amount of local immigration legislation that has changed. According to Kica Matos, director of the Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change, t he nature of the laws being passed has shifted from policies aimed at blocking illegal immigration to legislation designed to expand access to government services for undocumented immigrants.

"What’s interesting is if you look at the trajectory of 2006 and 2007, the trend was more towards introducing anti-immigrant bills. What we’ve really seen is a shift in the types of legislation that’s being introduced in particular states and much more acceptance ... of bills that are pro-immigration," Matos told Business Insider.

This stands in contrast, she said, to laws like the one Arizona famously passed in 2010 — which both supporters and critics identified as the strictest immigration crackdown in generations. That law, which was mostly struck down by a subsequent Supreme Court ruling, made failure to carry immigration documents a crime and expanded police power to go after anyone suspected of being an illegal immigrant.

Echoing many politicians and advocates for undocumented immigrants, Matos said one reason for the shift towards state- and city-level immigration reform is that officials have realized Congress is unlikely act on the issue anytime soon.

"The state legislatures and particularly the big cities are recognizing that when Congress is unwilling to move forward with legislation, ... municipalities and the states really have to wrestle with the challenges that come with the undocumented population," she argued.


William Alatriste/NYC Council

Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito holds press availability after testimony at municipal ID card hearing.

Of course, not everyone is happy with these measures. When New York City began to move forward with its municipal ID card bill in February, State Senator Greg Ball, a Republican leading his chamber's homeland security committee, warned of dire consequences.

“Now a decade plus after 9-11, New York's extremist mayor is laying out a hair brained scheme that can simply be dubbed the 'de Blasio Terrorist Empowerment Act.' My concern is not about the illegal alien dish washer looking to get to work, this extreme mayor's proposal, joined by efforts in the New York State Senate to provide New York State driver's licenses to illegals, will simply provide a mask to those seeking to harm the United States," Ball said at the time. "This mayor's proposal is a homeland security nightmare."

But Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito, who championed the bill in addition to other immigration-related measures, told Business Insider her legislative body was "very careful and deliberative" in how it crafted the municipal ID card law.

"We feel very comfortable about this. We feel very proud about what we’ve done," she said, also touting her efforts to expand legal services access in immigration courts and limit cooperation with federal deportation authorities in certain cases.

Mark-Viverito further predicted other localities will follow New York's lead.

"We know that New York City is the city this country and everywhere in the world has their eyes on," she said. "Definitely it’s a strong signal and a strong message to ... encourage others to implement it and take it a step further."

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