Op-Ed: Take the immigration fight to the states

Angela Reyes holds a sign while participating in a vigil at the Governor's Mansion in Austin, Texas, on June 23 in response to the Supreme Court decision about President Obama's immigration executive order.
(Jay Janner/Austin American-Statesman via Associated Press)

Undocumented immigrants were dealt a major setback last week. After a coalition of conservative states sued the Obama administration over its plans to grant deportation relief to the parents of American citizens, the Supreme Court deadlocked on whether or not to lift a lower court’s injunction on the program. The case of United States v. Texas will now go back to the lower court, where the fate of Obama’s executive action looks unfavorable.

Immigration advocates decried the Supreme Court’s ruling, pointing to the harm that inaction poses to mixed-status families. Many of them have vowed to continue the fight, pushing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy, elect another Democratic president willing to take further executive action, and perhaps even elect a new Congress willing to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

But evidence from the last decade has shown the limits of an immigration reform strategy that is fixated on the federal government. Instead, activists should pay more attention to the states, where policy victories and political momentum are more likely.


Immigrant advocates did score a major victory in 2012, when the Supreme Court struck down most aspects of Arizona’s immigration enforcement law. But federal courts have left intact many other state-level restrictions, such as penalties on businesses that hire workers in the country illegally. And the recent Texas case is likely to embolden conservative governors and attorneys general, who will increasingly look to federal trial courts as a way to fight future presidential action on immigration.

Even if executive action succeeds at the federal level, it can only provide limited protection. One of Obama’s signature executive actions on immigration, Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, gave young undocumented immigrants temporary work permits and relief from deportation. However, DACA recipients need to renew their status every two years, and they are not automatically eligible for important benefits, such as education and health insurance, that are provided at the state level.

Evidence from the last decade has shown the limits of an immigration reform strategy that is fixated on the federal government.

A legislative strategy won’t necessarily work, either. Let’s imagine that the Democrats hit the jackpot and win both chambers of Congress in November; they are still unlikely to get a filibuster-proof Senate majority. Recall that comprehensive immigration received bipartisan support in the Senate in summer 2006, but foundered in a Republican-controlled House that year. Democrats won control of both chambers in 2007 and passed immigration reform in the House, but were unable to overcome a Senate filibuster by Republicans.

Supporters of immigration reform, from advocacy groups and voters to candidates and contributors, are better off taking the fight to receptive states, at least in the short term.

California has done the most to integrate its immigrant population, providing benefits such as access to driver and professional licenses, in-state tuition, financial aid and health insurance. As a package, these laws aim to improve not only the lives of immigrants, but the state’s economy and society more generally.


A few other states, including Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington, also provide several benefits to immigrants that are unavailable at the federal level, such as health benefits for children and pregnant women regardless of when they entered the country. The next task in these states is to deepen the work of immigrant integration by, for instance, making sure that DACA recipients can practice as licensed professionals and gain access to health insurance.

Finally, there’s a third-tier of immigrant friendly states, including New York, Massachusetts, and New Jersey, that have not yet passed major reforms but where coalition-building can help immigrant advocates win support for California-style policies.

Not only are there are clear policy benefits to a state-based approach, there are political benefits too. As more and more states consider pro-integration measures, they gradually build support within parties and across a diverse range of constituencies, including not only immigrant voters but also large employers, local chambers of commerce, religious institutions, and law enforcement leaders. These are the kinds of coalitions that will ultimately be necessary for comprehensive immigration reform to succeed at the national level.

Indeed, without such broad-based support across many states, the prospects for immigration reform will remain dim, no matter who is elected president this year and no matter who wins control of Congress.

Karthick Ramakrishnan, professor at University of California, Riverside and Pratheepan Gulasekaram, associate professor at Santa Clara University, are authors of “The New Immigration Federalism.”

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