New Americans take the citizenship oath. DHS photo by Jetta Disco

State and Local Officials Call for U.S. Immigration Reform Amid Federal Polarization

Over the last decade, issues such as local law enforcement’s cooperation with federal immigration authorities and increasing partisan pressures have pushed more state and local legislators and officials to pick a side in the national immigration debate, sometimes at the expense of the traditional consensus and compromise that was previously more common in state and local government.

A new report released by the Bipartisan Policy Center (BPC) highlights the policy and enforcement issues faced by states and localities in the absence of federal action to fix a broken immigration system.

BPC hosted roundtables in 2017 and 2018 with bipartisan groups of National Association of Counties (NACo) and National Conference of State Legislatures (NCSL) members from across the country to uncover areas of agreement and divergence about the challenges states and communities face on the topic of immigration.

While many states and localities continue to find bipartisan ways to address local immigration challenges, BPC found that officials increasingly want Congress to reform the nation’s immigration laws to bring an end to the divisive national debate and allow state and local governments to return to their traditional role — serving their constituents, immigrants and native-born alike.

The national immigration debate’s intrusion into state and local politics also sometimes glosses over the actual immigration challenges these officials face daily, such as educating the children of immigrants and supporting the employers and industries that are sustaining their communities by hiring immigrants in addition to local workers.

Confusion and cooperation

The roundtables with NACo and NCSL, each of which had between 14 and 16 bipartisan attendees from across the country, sought to uncover areas of agreement and divergence about the immigration issues facing states and localities, including those especially relevant to both rural and urban communities. The roundtables also aimed to find messages and areas of bipartisanship at the state and local level that could resonate with federal legislators and inform the federal immigration debate.

The participants agreed that immigrants are important for their workforces, and that Congress needs to reform the nation’s laws. The participants also had a common set of political challenges, including feeling pressure from their national parties or advocacy groups to take partisan stands on immigration issues, and expressing fears about facing primary challenges from the right or left flanks of their party due to their immigration views. They also reported struggling because many of their constituents form their opinions about immigration based on a lack of information, or on misinformation, about the issue in their communities. There was also a feeling of frustration over Congress’s failure to pass immigration reform and laws that protect Deferred Action on Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipients, which has left states and localities with the task of addressing immigration issues locally with little clarity from national leaders in Washington, D.C.

While there was consensus in many areas, participants disagreed over whether states and localities should cooperate with federal immigration authorities in enforcing the nation’s immigration laws. While some participants said they view upholding the rule of law as an essential part of their roles, others stated that immigration enforcement actions by local authorities cause poor policy outcomes — like making immigrants in their communities suspicious of law enforcement and unwilling to access the public health system or other benefits.

However, no matter their perspectives on law enforcement cooperation, most jurisdictions said they do not support the federal government’s efforts to tie federal funding to such cooperation or to threaten jurisdictions instead of collaborating with them. Nevertheless, the participants expressed a unanimous call for Congress to address their daily challenges by taking action on immigration. Participants particularly expressed an urgent need for immigration reform that would create clarity on the way states and localities should follow the nation’s immigration laws.

The roundtable participants reported different experiences addressing immigrant populations in their areas and disagreed over the role that states and localities should play in immigration enforcement. Some legislators and county officials from communities with fewer resources, often rural jurisdictions, said they struggle to provide social services to immigrants and to maintain their county jails. In contrast, officials from states and counties with institutions and state laws that integrate immigrants (generally more urban jurisdictions) said they have more success in serving these populations and generating economic growth from their integration. However, for these areas, often the challenge is gaining the trust of immigrant communities, so they feel comfortable accessing available services and supports.

Federal polarization prevents reform

One of the principal themes that emerged during the discussions was the manner in which external activist groups and partisan primary challengers are expanding their influence over the immigration debate at the state and local level. Although there has long been bipartisan policy-making at the state and local level around specific immigration issues—like the need for migrant workers and the need for immigration reform—the participants noted that increased polarization makes it difficult for elected officials to maintain compromises, especially with state-level pushes for specific immigration policies, including both “pro-immigrant” and “anti-immigrant” legislation. As one state legislator from a Southern state said:

“You have a lot of outsiders pushing for more extremism when there’s not collegiality. Legislators get together and be collegial—that’s what legislators do. That’s what they’re supposed [to do]: make laws. But there’s outside forces and fever pitch trying to do these little scorecards where all the Democrats get zero and Republicans get 100, or vice versa, and push everybody into a cubby hole. I think that’s a problem that we’ve got; it’s an elephant in the room.”

Participants lambasted the continued federal polarization over immigration, saying it is preventing Congress from reforming the nation’s immigration laws to resolve these problems. A county attorney from a mid-Atlantic state noted:

“If you look at the two edges, all the politicians are playing to the bases. That’s why they can’t get anything done. Whereas the majority want to secure the borders [and] give a pathway to citizenship—the people who are here stay and make them legal—so in the future, we have more control over the system. But everybody is playing to their base; that’s why we can’t get anything done.”

State and local officials hold the keys

The roundtables showed that state and local officials and legislators offer unique perspectives that can help federal lawmakers break through partisan gridlock to pass these reforms. Despite the geographic and political differences among states and counties, participants presented a clear call to action for national immigration reform. Rather than leaving states and localities with the task of interpreting and applying federal immigration law, the participants said they want national lawmakers to adopt reforms to make it easier for them to follow these laws. To this end, state and local lawmakers articulated a desire for a simple immigration system that is fair to individuals waiting “in line” to enter the United States and that allows their employers access to a secure and authorized workforce.

These officials also want federal lawmakers to pass fair immigration enforcement legislation that does not necessitate a wave of localized sanctuary policies to protect immigrant populations. Finally, the officials want federal lawmakers to protect their immigrant workforces and make it easier to hire the foreign workers who play a vital role in their local economies.

In contrast to the political polarization at the federal level that has characterized the immigration debate, state and local officials offer experience in using consensus to pass laws, create pilot programs, and identify best immigration integration practices— all of which can help national lawmakers see new avenues for changing the nation’s immigration laws.

Read the full report at the Bipartisan Policy Center

Kylie Bielby has more than 20 years' experience in reporting and editing a wide range of security topics, covering geopolitical and policy analysis to international and country-specific trends and events. Before joining GTSC's Homeland Security Today staff, she was an editor and contributor for Jane's, and a columnist and managing editor for security and counter-terror publications.

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