With the U.S. Supreme Court decision on Arizona's get-tough immigration enforcement law in the rearview mirror, state lawmakers nationwide might be gearing up for more action on related bills in the coming year.
In the shadow of the Supreme Court's looming decision, the number of related bills and resolutions pushed by state lawmakers dropped significantly in the first half of 2012, according to a study released yesterday.
The National Conference of State Legislatures study found a 40 percent drop in the number of proposed laws compared with the same six-month time period in 2011. State lawmakers in 46 states and the District of Columbia introduced 948 bills and resolutions related to immigrants and refugees, down from a peak of 1,592 bills in the first half of 2011. Four state legislatures did not meet in regular session this year.
“States took a bit of a pause on the issue of immigration as they waited for the Supreme Court to rule,” Virginia Sen. John Watkins, a Republican and co-chairman of the conference task force that oversaw the study, said in a statement. “The ruling we got is a yellow light, in that states can move forward in some areas, but not in others.”
State houses will be watching how the Obama administration rolls out its plan to offer a reprieve from deportation to young unauthorized immigrants who meet certain criteria, known as deferred action. The Migration Policy Institute, a nonpartisan Washington think tank, estimates that as many as 1.7 million people younger than 31 could avoid deportation for two years through deferred action. Some states might look to challenge the policy while others consider how to work with the federal government.
The fall election might not have much bearing on how states proceed with immigration legislation, either.
“On the issue of immigration, the outcome in November really doesn’t matter. Whoever is elected president will need to work with both parties in Congress and address this issue," said Washington Rep. Sharon Tomiko Santos, a Democrat who also led the task force. "The can has been kicked down the road for too long, and states have suffered as a result. Come January, action at the federal level needs to happen.”
Besides awaiting the justices’ decision on whether only the federal government gets to create – and enforce – immigration laws, legislators also say budget gaps and redistricting took priority, according to the study. Law enforcement and identification and driver’s licenses remain the top focus for immigration-related legislation among state legislatures.
But the decline was not as steep when it came to the number of bills and resolutions that lawmakers approved. From January to June of this year, state legislatures voted in favor of 206 bills and resolutions, a drop of 20 percent from the 257 laws and resolutions in the first half of 2011. As of June 30, governors had vetoed two bills and 19 more awaited signatures, which were not included in the study.
Georgia enacted the most bills and resolutions in the first half of the year, followed by Virginia, California, Utah, Arizona and Florida.
Sweeping legislation, like the Arizona law and more than 50 similar bills introduced in 30 state legislatures last year, ground to a halt in the first half of the year, as only five states – Kansas, Mississippi, Missouri, Rhode Island and West Virginia – proposed wide-reaching laws.
The Immigration Reform Law Institute, the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which advocates for less immigration, helped draft the language for the Arizona law. Spokesman Bob Dane said the Supreme Court's ruling provided clarity for states, which could fuel more legislative action.
"States have no choice but to step up to the plate with their own bills" now and into the foreseeable future, Dane said, because of what he called the inaction in Washington. "We’re going to have to wait for the next legislative season to see what is getting off ground."
David Leopold, general counsel of the American Immigration Lawyers Association, said he suspects that other state legislatures might be cautious after seeing how the courts diminished or knocked down parts of tough immigration laws passed in Arizona, Alabama and elsewhere – not to mention the economic effects to those states, he said.
“The benefits of anti-immigration or crackdown legislation are far outweighed by the risks, and most legislators are fairly risk averse,” he said.
California’s answer to Arizona’s stringent law, AB 1081, recently passed the state Senate after sitting inactive since 2011. The bill seeks to limit California law enforcement's participation in a program, called Secure Communities, that shares fingerprints obtained by state and local police with federal immigration officials. Lawmakers anticipate it will move to Gov. Jerry Brown's desk.
Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, who has introduced different versions of the bill, said his staff has begun conversations with the governor's office regarding the legislation. He said he was cautiously optimistic that it would become law.
A spokesman for Brown declined to comment on pending legislation.