Most States Suing Obama Over Immigration Have Small Undocumented Populations

And now a group of more than 30 cities—most with large immigrant communities—has filed a brief in support of the president’s action.

Protesters wave signs as US President Barack Obama arrives to speak about his recent executive actions on immigration on December 9, 2014 at the Casa Azafran, a community center and home to a number of immigrant-related nonprofit organizations, in Nashville, Tennessee.
National Journal
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Ronald Brownstein
Jan. 29, 2015, 9:12 a.m.

Call it a clash of civil­iz­a­tions, Amer­ic­an-style.

On Monday, a group of 33 cit­ies—most ra­cially di­verse and Demo­crat­ic-lean­ing—filed a leg­al brief sup­port­ing the ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion Pres­id­ent Obama an­nounced last Novem­ber that provides leg­al pro­tec­tion to as many as 5.2 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. The cit­ies in­ter­vened to de­fend Obama’s ac­tion against a law­suit seek­ing to block it, a suit filed by 26 Re­pub­lic­an-lean­ing states, most of which have been touched only lightly by im­mig­ra­tion.

In a telling com­par­is­on, the cit­ies back­ing Obama in the fed­er­al case ac­tu­ally house a lar­ger pop­u­la­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants than the states op­pos­ing him, ac­cord­ing to es­tim­ates by the non­par­tis­an Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute.

“It has al­ways been strik­ing to me that these places that have very few im­mig­rants are the most [un­nerved] by their pres­ence,” says so­ci­ology pro­fess­or Manuel Pas­tor, dir­ect­or of the Pro­gram for En­vir­on­ment­al and Re­gion­al Equity at the Uni­versity of South­ern Cali­for­nia. “But in the places that have long-settled im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tions—and, in par­tic­u­lar, have large shares of the un­doc­u­mented—these pop­u­la­tions have be­come deeply in­ter­woven in­to the fab­ric of the over­all com­munity.”

The stan­doff between the cit­ies and states over a policy that crys­tal­lizes anxi­ety about the na­tion’s tu­mul­tu­ous demo­graph­ic change com­presses more of mod­ern Amer­ic­an polit­ics in­to a single con­front­a­tion than might seem pos­sible.

The most ob­vi­ous dif­fer­ence between the city and state co­ali­tions is their par­tis­an lean­ing. Of the 26 states that joined the law­suit, 24 have Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernors. In the  two oth­er states (Montana and West Vir­gin­ia), Re­pub­lic­an at­tor­neys gen­er­al joined the case while the Demo­crat­ic gov­ernors poin­tedly re­fused to do so. Of the four Demo­crat­ic at­tor­neys gen­er­al in of­fice in the 26 states when the case was filed, only Arkan­sas’ Dustin McDaniel signed on.

By con­trast, the may­ors who joined the lit­ig­a­tion are all Demo­crats, in­clud­ing Eric Gar­cetti in Los Angeles, Bill de Bla­sio in New York City, Rahm Emanuel in Chica­go, Kasim Reed in At­lanta, Mi­chael Nut­ter in Phil­adelphia, and An­nise Park­er in Hou­s­ton. The U.S. Con­fer­ence of May­ors and the Na­tion­al League of Cit­ies, which are non­par­tis­an and in­clude may­ors from both parties, also joined the suit—but no Re­pub­lic­an may­ors are par­ti­cip­at­ing as in­di­vidu­als.

That align­ment re­flects the “dens­ity di­vide” that now sees Demo­crats dom­in­at­ing the vast ma­jor­ity of the na­tion’s urb­an cen­ters and Re­pub­lic­ans rul­ing al­most every­where out­side of them. While Obama won by about 5 mil­lion votes in 2012, he lost more than three-fourths of the na­tion’s 3,112 counties, and re­lied on his 100 best counties to pro­duce more of his over­all vote mar­gin than any win­ner since at least 1920.

Many of the cit­ies sup­port­ing Obama in the case are at the fore­front of the grow­ing ra­cial di­versity re­mak­ing the coun­try. For in­stance, in each of the six cit­ies noted above that in­ter­vened, minor­it­ies con­sti­tute about three-quar­ters or more of the stu­dents in the K-12 pub­lic school sys­tem.

Big cit­ies are also on the front line of deal­ing with the na­tion’s es­tim­ated pop­u­la­tion of roughly 11 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Of those 11 mil­lion, just over 5 mil­lion are ex­pec­ted to qual­i­fy for leg­al pro­tec­tion un­der Obama’s ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion. 

The pop­u­la­tion of un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants has sub­stan­tially dis­persed since the last ma­jor leg­al­iz­a­tion un­der Ron­ald Re­agan in the 1980s. But even so, a sig­ni­fic­ant por­tion of that pop­u­la­tion re­mains con­cen­trated in the largest cit­ies.

A Next Amer­ica ana­lys­is of Mi­gra­tion Policy In­sti­tute data found the counties that in­clude cit­ies in­ter­ven­ing in the law­suit are home to an es­tim­ated 4.76 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. Of those, 2.06 mil­lion are pro­jec­ted to qual­i­fy for leg­al pro­tec­tion un­der Obama’s or­der. Top­ping the list are Los Angeles (with 466,000 eli­gible), New York City (238,000 eli­gible), Hou­s­ton (196,000 eli­gible), and Chica­go (171,000 eli­gible).

All told, the 26 states su­ing Obama house 4.45 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants—about 300,000 less than the cit­ies in­ter­ven­ing to sup­port him, ac­cord­ing to the MPI data. The MPI es­tim­ates the states op­pos­ing Obama have 2.05 mil­lion un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants eli­gible for the ac­tion, about the same as the cit­ies. But sub­tract­ing the totals for cit­ies like Hou­s­ton and At­lanta that have in­ter­vened for Obama from the states op­pos­ing him, re­duces the state total of eli­gible un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to about 1.8 mil­lion, be­low the city tally.

Ex­cept for Texas, every state su­ing to block Obama has few­er un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants po­ten­tially eli­gible for the ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion than Los Angeles alone; Flor­ida is the only oth­er state in the suit that has more po­ten­tially eli­gible than New York City. “Many of our cit­ies are lar­ger than those states that are even su­ing,” Los Angeles May­or Gar­cetti poin­tedly said re­cently.

More broadly, the states op­pos­ing Obama also tend to be those more sheltered from the broad­er wave of im­mig­ra­tion that has washed over Amer­ica since the 1960s. Ex­amin­ing census data on the dis­tri­bu­tion of for­eign-born res­id­ents yields a re­veal­ing pat­tern. Of the 20 states whose for­eign-born res­id­ents rep­res­ent the smal­lest share of their over­all pop­u­la­tion, 15 are su­ing Obama. Of the 20 states whose for­eign-born res­id­ents rep­res­ent the largest share of their over­all pop­u­la­tion, 15 are not su­ing Obama. (The five that have joined the case are Ari­zona, Flor­ida, Geor­gia, Nevada, and Texas.)

Put an­oth­er way, just eight of the 26 states sup­port­ing the law­suit land in the top half when states are ranked by the share of their total pop­u­la­tion that was born abroad. In nearly half of the states par­ti­cip­at­ing in the law­suit, for­eign-born res­id­ents ac­count for few­er than one in 20 state res­id­ents.

Still, as Pas­tor points out, many of the con­ser­vat­ive states ex­per­i­en­cing the sharpest back­lash against il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion are those like Alabama, South Car­o­lina, and Geor­gia whose His­pan­ic pop­u­la­tions are grow­ing rap­idly, al­beit usu­ally from a low base. “The ten­sions around im­mig­ra­tion seem to flare up when it’s both new and rap­id,” he notes.

Even in states with few ra­cial minor­it­ies or for­eign-born res­id­ents, those groups tend to con­cen­trate more heav­ily in the urb­an cen­ters. That can open a cul­tur­al and polit­ic­al chasm, as de­scribed by Salt Lake City May­or Ral­ph Beck­er at a re­cent Next Amer­ica for­um. “I think in Salt Lake City, we’re so ac­cus­tomed to [di­versity] and so en­joy it that it’s not an is­sue,” says Beck­er, a Demo­crat who joined the law­suit to sup­port Obama’s ac­tion. “But at the state level, there’s a pretty good gap, par­tic­u­larly when you look at a state Le­gis­lature that is pre­dom­in­antly white, male, Mor­mon, and eld­erly.”

The con­trast between the leg­al pa­pers filed by each side is telling. In their brief, the states stress their con­ten­tion that Obama lacks the au­thor­ity for his or­der. But the states also por­tray the un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tion primar­ily as a li­ab­il­ity to their com­munit­ies. Un­der Obama’s or­der, they con­tend, the states “will be forced to ex­pend sub­stan­tial re­sources on law en­force­ment, health care, and edu­ca­tion,” in­clud­ing provid­ing pub­lic school edu­ca­tion and emer­gency health care ser­vices. (Un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants will re­main in­eligible for the fed­er­al health care law un­der Obama’s or­der.)

But in their fil­ing, the cit­ies de­fend Obama’s au­thor­ity while also por­tray­ing their un­doc­u­mented pop­u­la­tions as as­sets for their com­munit­ies. Obama’s or­der “will fuel eco­nom­ic growth in cit­ies across the coun­try, in­crease pub­lic safety and pub­lic en­gage­ment, and fa­cil­it­ate the full in­teg­ra­tion of im­mig­rant res­id­ents by pro­mot­ing fam­ily unity and lim­it­ing fam­ily sep­ar­a­tion,” the cit­ies con­tend. “These pos­it­ive im­pacts are pos­sible be­cause ex­ec­ut­ive ac­tion will per­mit un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants to bet­ter reach their po­ten­tial and con­trib­ute to their com­munit­ies.”

While ad­voc­ates on both sides be­lieve that An­drew Han­en, the con­ser­vat­ive fed­er­al dis­trict judge in Texas now hear­ing the case, is likely to rule against it, Obama’s sup­port­ers re­main cau­tiously op­tim­ist­ic that high­er courts will ul­ti­mately up­hold his ac­tion. In a 2012 rul­ing on Ari­zona’s tough en­force­ment law, the Su­preme Court un­der­scored the primacy of fed­er­al au­thor­ity on im­mig­ra­tion is­sues.

If Obama’s im­mig­ra­tion ac­tion ul­ti­mately moves for­ward, it will likely ig­nite fur­ther con­flict between blue-lean­ing urb­an cen­ters and more-con­ser­vat­ive sur­round­ing areas, par­tic­u­larly in the states that sued to block the ac­tion. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment is re­ly­ing heav­ily on loc­al non­profits and mu­ni­cip­al gov­ern­ments to un­der­take out­reach to the po­ten­tially eli­gible. Some sup­port­ers fear that con­ser­vat­ive states fight­ing the or­der such as Ari­zona, Geor­gia, and Texas may pres­sure or com­pel more left-lean­ing city gov­ern­ments to cur­tail their ef­forts. “That’s ex­actly what we are pre­par­ing for,” said Mar­i­elena Hin­capie, ex­ec­ut­ive dir­ect­or of the Na­tion­al Im­mig­ra­tion Law Cen­ter, which sup­ports Obama’s ac­tion. “There is a little bit of a show­down that will be hap­pen­ing between mu­ni­cip­al gov­ern­ments and states.” In that scen­ario, this week’s leg­al skir­mish between blue cit­ies and red states may be just round one.

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