State immigration legislation moving slowly
This year, 30 states have introduced a total of 52 omnibus immigration bills, several of which were modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 passed last year. Yet, so far, only two — Utah and Georgia — have passed any of the legislation. While lawmakers are still considering bills, observers say concerns about costs and constitutional challenges have made many legislators hesitant to pass new immigration laws this year. “States have determined they need more time to review what impact the legislation might have on the state and are waiting on the courts to rule on SB 1070,” says Ann Morse, program director for the Washington-based National Conference of State Legislatures’ Immigrant Policy Project. “Budgets also have a large part to play.”
Utah lawmakers pushed through the first immigration bills of the year on March 7, which the governor signed on March 15. The Georgia legislature followed on April 14. Georgia took a very similar approach to Arizona, which required local law enforcement to check the immigration status of criminal suspects. In Utah, the debate was broadened beyond immigration law enforcement to address employment issues as well, says Elena Lacayo, immigration field coordinator for the Office of Research, Advocacy and Legislation for Washington-based National Council of La Raza, a Latino civil rights organization.
Utah’s HB 497 calls for verification of immigration status for anyone arrested for a felony or class A misdemeanor. However, the state also approved HB 116, which allows illegal immigrants to apply for state guest worker permits. Supporters of HB 116 say it helps the economy by allowing immigrants already working in the state to continue doing so. It also requires them to register with the state and undergo a background check.
Utah’s approach with HB 116, rather than just setting out guidelines for arresting and punishing illegals and those who harbor and transport them, creates a solution that allows them to continue working in the state if they abide by certain requirements, Morse says. “Utah has come forward and has reframed immigration as an economic situation instead of just law enforcement,” she says.
Morse expects states to continue debating immigration laws next year. “Even if a state has worked in one area, they could cover another area,” she says. “What states are trying to say is that if the federal government isn’t going to act, we’ll push until you do.”
Jennifer Grzeskowiak is a Laguna Beach, Calif.-based freelance writer.