With federal immigration reform at a standstill, state governments are moving ahead on issues that have practical but profound consequences in the daily lives of millions of undocumented migrants.
In recent months, at least 39 states have considered more than 100 bills that affect immigrants’ access to driver’s licenses. According to the National Immigration Law Center, 18 states have taken up proposals to make it easier for children of illegal immigrants to pursue a college education.
Advocates on both sides of the immigration divide say the states are signaling Washington that the time has come to try to solve the social and economic puzzle of illegal immigration.
“This is a harbinger of a debate that is going to take place in Congress,” said Richard D. Lamm, a former Democratic governor of Colorado who favors restrictions on immigration. “The impact is taking place in the states, but it will soon burst upon Congress.”
Before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, President Bush and Mexican President Vicente Fox were seeking a broad immigration accord that was to include a guest worker program and amnesty for many undocumented immigrants living in the United States. Negotiations came to a halt because of security concerns and Mexico’s opposition to the Iraq war. The deaths last month of 19 Mexican immigrants who had been transported in a smuggler’s trailer truck in Texas have prompted Secretary of State Colin L. Powell to say the U.S. remained interested in an agreement, albeit on a more modest scale.
The immigration policies of state legislatures have produced a hodgepodge of results. Some states have voted to make it easier for undocumented immigrants to get a driver’s license, use IDs issued by the Mexican government or pursue a college education, circumventing more restrictive federal policies. Others have taken a hard line against illegal immigration.
In predominantly Democratic Maryland, Republican Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. recently vetoed legislation that would have allowed undocumented students in the state to attend public colleges and pay in-state tuition.
Ehrlich said such a policy “rewards illegal behavior,” undermines benefits for legal residents and “violates the spirit” of federal laws.
In Utah, conservative Republicans pushed through a bill last year that opened state colleges and universities to undocumented students who had lived in the state for three years and could meet admission requirements.
They were spurred by the activism of high school teacher Gerry Maak, whose determination to help a star student has made her a pioneer of sorts in the immigration debate sweeping state capitals.
Maak teaches Spanish in Park City, Utah, a mountain resort near Salt Lake City. Her student, Silvia Salguero, had been accepted to the University of Utah and had also won scholarship money.
But Salguero is an illegal immigrant from Mexico and faced legal and financial roadblocks to a college education until Maak started a campaign that led to Utah changing its laws.
“I kind of went crazy and started calling everyone I could think of,” Maak said. “I got into it because of my student. It was the only fair thing to do.... It was the only American thing to do.” Salguero began her college career in January.
California addressed the higher education issue in 2001 with a law granting in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students who attended state high schools for at least three years and graduated.
This year, the state Assembly passed a bill that would require all local governments to honor identification cards issued by Mexican consulates. The cards look like driver’s licenses and show the bearer’s U.S. address. Senate action is pending.
Having valid identification is a crucial concern for illegal immigrants, because it can allow them to open bank accounts and can prevent routine encounters with the police from leading to arrest. Federal authorities have expressed concern that the cards can be fraudulently obtained but have otherwise taken a hands-off stance.
Ann Morse, a policy analyst with the National Conference of State Legislatures, said she has been surprised by the success of immigrant advocates at the state level, particularly in a tough economy.
“Legislators don’t want to be providing benefits that put native-born Americans at a disadvantage, but they also want to provide some fairness to people who have been here a long time,” Morse said. The federal government estimates there are at least 7 million illegal immigrants in the country, the majority from Mexico. The state-by-state response partly reflects the spread of Mexican migration beyond traditional receiving states such as California.
New Jersey, Virginia and West Virginia passed laws in their current legislative sessions that restrict illegal immigrants’ ability to get driver’s licenses, while Kansas and New Mexico approved statutes that allow immigrants to get licensed without a Social Security number.
Oklahoma, Washington and Illinois passed bills making it easier for the children of undocumented migrants to attend college. In Florida, Republican Gov. Jeb Bush supported the idea, but the bill stalled in committee.
GOP lawmakers, once largely united behind restrictions on immigration, are increasingly divided.
In Colorado, Republican state Sen. John Andrews led a successful drive to sharply restrict the acceptance of Mexican IDs. His legislation bars local officials from accepting them. But it makes an exception for police and does not prevent private businesses such as banks from honoring the cards.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, border crossings from Mexico dropped. Now that the flow has gone back up, Andrews sees unchecked immigration as a security concern. “Not that our neighbors from Mexico represent a threat in and of themselves,” he said, “but the border is a crossing point for people from every part of the world.”
In Utah, Republican state Sen. Howard Stephenson also complains about Washington -- but for very different reasons than Andrews.
President Bush “ought to be showing some leadership” to acknowledge the contribution of undocumented workers to American society, said Stephenson, a self-described conservative from a “very conservative, white section of the state.”
Stephenson was a sponsor of the 2002 Utah bill that allowed children of illegal immigrants, Silvia Salguero among them, to attend state colleges.
He states his case with an eclectic mix of market economics and “compassionate conservatism.”
“Every citizen who buys a flat of strawberries for $16, or who enjoys a cheap hotel room or an inexpensive restaurant meal is essentially demanding that people come across the border illegally to fulfill their economic request,” Stephenson said.
“I just felt strongly that every child who participates in the Utah public education system and does well should not be held back because of their parents’ decision to come to the United States illegally,” he added.
The future of Utah’s college tuition law -- and similar laws in six other states, including California -- may be decided in a clash between state and federal prerogatives. A provision of a 1996 federal law requires states that offer in-state tuition to undocumented students to extend the same privilege to U.S. legal residents from other states.
In Congress, Rep. Chris Cannon (R-Utah) has introduced legislation to repeal the 1996 provision and create a means for undocumented students to obtain legal residency. Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) is expected to introduce a companion bill in that chamber.
The Bush administration has not taken a position. “We think there are a number of interesting ideas for reforming our immigration system,” said White House spokesman Scott McClellan. “There are additional aspects to the legislation beyond the matter of in-state tuition, and we would want to take a look at those aspects.”
But some opponents of accommodating undocumented immigrants have said the White House is quietly cheering for states to expand benefits.
“The states are in fits and starts, bringing about a kind of illegal-alien amnesty, and there are a lot of folks in the administration who understand that and agree with it,” said Mark Krikorian, executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies. “They look the other way while the states bring about an amnesty on their own, presenting Congress with a fait accompli.”
Although states “are helping to normalize a lot of the day-to-day interface between illegals and the world they live in, only the federal government can grant work authorization and that is basically the trump card,” said B. Lindsay Lowell, director of an immigration research program at Georgetown University.
Salguero, the Utah student whose case sent teacher Maak into action, said she has a chance to fulfill dreams now that she is enrolled in the university. The oldest of seven children, Salguero followed her parents to the United States at age 13.
“We children were not responsible for coming here, but my parents wanted a better life,” said Salguero, now 20.
Her father always encouraged her to study, Salguero said, but she said that as an undocumented immigrant, cleaning houses is probably the best work she can get. With a college education, she hopes to become a nurse.
“Everything starts with someone who is willing to take a risk, and I think it was my turn,” Salguero said. “I want to be somebody.”