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In Wake of SB 1070, Waves of Pro-Immigrant Legislation Emerge

Posted: Apr 25, 2012

Fed up with Washington’s do-nothing stance on immigration, Arizona officials approved their own immigration law, the now infamous SB 1070, two years ago in an attempt to accumulate political capital and deport their way to economic prosperity.

A flurry of copycat legislation soon materialized in state legislatures across the country. In all, thirty-six states introduced Arizona-style bills, calling for state and local law enforcement authorities to assume the role of federal immigration officials. And five of those states – Utah, Indiana, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama – succeeded in signing their bills into law.

But as the U.S Supreme Court hears arguments this week on the constitutionality of SB 1070, the economic and political payoffs envisioned by the authors of those bills have failed to materialize. Emerging instead is a wave of “pro-immigrant” legislation, as business and agricultural groups, burdened by labor shortages and economic gloom, increasingly side with immigrant advocates in acknowledging undocumented immigrants as a key economic presence.

Utah, for example, approved a ground-breaking guest worker law last year that, starting in 2013, will allow undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state as long as they pass background checks and pay fines. The law would issue a two-year work permit for unauthorized foreigners who can prove they have been living and working in the state. Business and farm groups lobbied heavily for the law, and the Church of Latter Day Saints – the Mormon Church -- also endorsed it.

The Utah guest worker law, although flawed, has inspired copycats of its own. Kansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico, all facing agricultural labor shortages, have recently structured guest worker bills based on the Utah model. And a proposed California ballot measure, the California Opportunity and Prosperity Act, would allow undocumented immigrants in the Golden State to live and work through a pilot program. The bipartisan measure would require that workers pass background checks, speak English and prove they have lived in the state since January 2008.

“State legislators are largely turning their backs on broad anti-immigrant legislation as being too expensive and divisive for their states, and are increasingly turning towards pro-immigrant proposals that expand opportunity for all residents, both immigrant and native-born,” said Suman Raghunathan, policy director of the Progressive States Network, which opposes state immigration enforcement laws.

Further proof of burgeoning pro-immigrant legislation, advocates say, is the burst of tuition equity bills, commonly referred to as dream bills. After the U.S. Congress last year rejected the DREAM Act, which would have granted legal status to undocumented immigrants who completed some college or military service, organizers turned their attention to the states.

The 2011 legislative sessions saw at least 12 states introduce dream bills. The measures do not propose a pathway to citizenship for unauthorized immigrant students. Instead, they focus on making in-state tuition rates available to students regardless of their immigrant status. The results have been mixed. Although states like California, Illinois, Colorado and New York have passed or are considering dream bills, measures that restrict access to higher education passed in Alabama, Wisconsin and Indiana.

The complicated patchwork of pro-immigrant bills across the country, although varying in scope and success, do amount to one unified message. States, tired of filling a vacuum left by 26 years of federal government inaction on immigration, are desperate for Washington to enact reform.

“Part of it is to send a message to the federal government that we need a change in federal law, that we need a change in policy to allow people who live and work and contribute to our communities to have a pathway to status and to come out of the shadows,“ said Tanya Broder, a senior staff attorney with the National Immigration Law Center. “So some of this is a dialogue between the states and federal government asking for a change.”

In most cases, the sheer expense of anti-illegal immigration laws have proved hard to ignore for most states, which have witnessed Arizona and Alabama pile economic anguish onto already crippled economies.

Arizona’s economy has lost an estimated $750 million after boycotts resulted in conference cancellations and booking declines. Boycotts also cost the state $17 million in lost tax revenue due to reduced tourism spending and employment. And if fully implemented, SB 1070 would eliminate 581,000 jobs for immigrant and native-born workers alike, and shrink the state economy by $48.8 billion, according to a joint report from The Center for American Progress and the Immigration Policy Center.

Alabama passed an immigration law in September that is more draconian than Arizona’s, with provisions, some of them blocked by a district judge, that would make it a crime to be undocumented and would allow public schools to check the immigration status of students. Now the state stands to lose up to $10.8 billion annually, mostly from reduced demand for goods and services provided by Alabama businesses, according to a study by the Center for Business & Economic Research at the University of Alabama.

The political repercussions of Arizona-style laws have also proved costly. There is no better example than Russell Pearce, the former Arizona senator who authored SB 1070. Known for his bullying style and fiery anti-immigrant rhetoric, Pearce was voted out of power in November in the first recall of a sitting lawmaker in state history. He was defeated by fellow Republican Jerry Lewis, who struck a more moderate tone on immigration.

“Many legislators realized they couldn't gain political capital from being anti-immigrant after the historic November 2011 recall of State Senator Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070,” said Raghunathan. “Simply put, states have shifted away from considering divisive and expensive anti-immigrant proposals because they can't afford it, now or in the future.”

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