Immigration Policy: Is Federalism the Answer?

As a quick federal fix to immigration policy increasingly looks like a long shot, state and local proposals are gaining traction.

National Journal
Andrew Wainer And Audrey Singer
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Andrew Wainer and Audrey Singer
April 21, 2014, 9:30 a.m.

For those of us track­ing im­mig­ra­tion policy, the shift is un­deni­able. With Pres­id­ent Obama re­cently point­ing out just how grid­locked a once-prom­ising bi­par­tis­an Sen­ate im­mig­ra­tion pro­pos­al has be­come, cit­ies and states have be­come the new im­mig­ra­tion-policy in­nov­at­ors. They are filling the void.

U.S. im­mig­ra­tion policy has been the pur­view of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment for more than a cen­tury. But it was not al­ways that way. In the 19th and early 20th cen­tur­ies, in­di­vidu­al states had their own im­mig­ra­tion laws. States typ­ic­ally sought to reg­u­late im­mig­rant in­fluxes with policies that re­flec­ted par­tic­u­lar con­cern about the ar­rival of poor European new­comers. Now, im­mig­ra­tion policy is, in some ways, re­turn­ing to its roots.

In­creas­ingly, places that want to put out the wel­come mat and en­cour­age en­tre­pren­eur­i­al activ­ity are shar­ing ideas. And as a quick fed­er­al fix to im­mig­ra­tion policy looks like a long shot, loc­al and state pro­pos­als are gain­ing trac­tion.

In per­haps the most well-known cur­rent ex­ample of state-level im­mig­ra­tion strategy, Michigan’s Re­pub­lic­an gov­ernor, Rick Snyder, pro­posed in Janu­ary bring­ing 50,000 im­mig­rants to De­troit over five years through a visa pro­gram aimed at im­mig­rants with ad­vanced de­grees or ex­cep­tion­al abil­it­ies in sci­ence, busi­ness, or the arts. These im­mig­rants would have to live and work in the strug­gling city.

De­troit, a city that lost about 237,500 res­id­ents — a full quarter of its pop­u­la­tion — between 2000 and 2010 alone, needs people. The hope is that im­mig­rant new­comers will oc­cupy empty res­id­en­tial blocks, launch small busi­nesses, and fill both high- and low-skill job niches.

Per­haps that’s why Snyder’s pro­pos­al has been en­dorsed by con­ser­vat­ive think tanks and news­pa­pers. But giv­en con­gres­sion­al con­trol over im­mig­ra­tion policy, it looks un­likely to be­come law in the near fu­ture.

Nev­er­the­less, Snyder’s pro­pos­al ranks among a grow­ing list of ideas em­an­at­ing from states and cit­ies seek­ing ways to man­age im­mig­ra­tion. In 2013, there was a 64 per­cent in­crease in pro­posed or en­acted state laws deal­ing with im­mig­ra­tion, com­pared with 2012. And that in­crease fol­lows a doub­ling of state im­mig­ra­tion le­gis­la­tion between 2006 and 2010. Moreover, these ini­ti­at­ives re­flect a shift from those fo­cused on im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment and de­flect­ing im­mig­rants to those that ex­pand state be­ne­fits such as ex­tend­ing driver’s li­cense eli­gib­il­ity and in-state tu­ition to un­au­thor­ized res­id­ents.

In the latest state at­tempt to work around the fed­er­al stale­mate, Mas­sachu­setts Gov. Dev­al Patrick un­veiled the Glob­al En­tre­pren­eur Pro­gram that re­cruits for­eign stu­dents to stay and work on new start-ups in the state. It ex­ploits an ex­ist­ing loop­hole in the fed­er­al H-1B visa pro­gram.

State laws can make a dif­fer­ence in the lives of im­mig­rants and their fam­il­ies. In late 2013, Cali­for­nia ap­proved the “Trust Act,” which dir­ects state law en­force­ment to ex­ped­ite the re­lease of de­tained un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants after they are de­term­ined not to have ser­i­ous crim­in­al re­cords rather than quickly turn them over to fed­er­al of­fi­cials, who can de­port them. Im­ple­men­ted in Janu­ary, the law has already slowed the rate of de­port­a­tions in Cali­for­nia by 44 per­cent, ac­cord­ing to an As­so­ci­ated Press ana­lys­is.

To craft ef­fect­ive policies, com­munit­ies must un­der­stand the drivers that dir­ect im­mig­rants to cer­tain towns or re­gions. This is easi­er said than done.

About a dec­ade ago, the Abell Found­a­tion stud­ied the is­sue for Bal­timore and found, “The few com­par­able cit­ies that re­versed their pop­u­la­tion de­cline through im­mig­ra­tion did not plan their suc­cess.” Today’s im­mig­ra­tion is driv­en by a vari­ety of factors. Re­cent re­search re­leased by Bread for the World In­sti­tute on “blue-col­lar” im­mig­rants in Bal­timore and De­troit provides some clues about what at­tracts work­ing-class im­mig­rants to cit­ies.

While a repu­ta­tion as an im­mig­rant-friendly city can’t hurt, lower-skilled im­mig­rants who are help­ing re­vital­ize these cit­ies tend to se­lect a new city to call home based on three primary factors: low hous­ing costs, a plen­ti­ful manu­al-labor job mar­ket, and fam­ily con­nec­tions.

As one Bal­timore-area con­struc­tion com­pany own­er who ob­served the in­crease in Latino im­mig­ra­tion noted, “Rent was cheap, and the work was there; that’s really the bot­tom line.”

Fam­ily and com­munity con­nec­tions are also im­port­ant. Once an im­mig­rant has settled in a U.S. city, it’s a safe bet that if oth­ers from that per­son’s re­gion, vil­lage, or fam­ily de­cide to mi­grate, they will be­gin that jour­ney in cit­ies where they know people who can help them find hous­ing or of­fer them a place to stay, con­nect them with jobs, and ex­plain the way things work in their new home.

Mu­ni­cip­al­it­ies with large and di­verse im­mig­rant pop­u­la­tions such as New York are lead­ing the way when it comes to tak­ing eco­nom­ic drivers in­to ac­count. Its blue­print for im­mig­rant in­teg­ra­tion in­cludes as­sist­ance for im­mig­rant en­tre­pren­eurs and em­ploy­ment ser­vices for un­der­em­ployed im­mig­rants with in-de­mand skills. These prac­tic­al pro­grams align with most im­mig­rants’ primary goal — eco­nom­ic ad­vance­ment — which can also po­ten­tially con­trib­ute to a city’s eco­nom­ic de­vel­op­ment.

But whatever the con­fig­ur­a­tion of state and mu­ni­cip­al im­mig­rant-at­trac­tion strategies, they are not a sub­sti­tute for fed­er­al le­gis­lat­ive ac­tion. It is fed­er­al, not state or loc­al, policy that con­trols the laws that al­low im­mig­rants to enter the coun­try to live and work. As long as im­mig­ra­tion re­form re­mains stuck in Con­gress, states and cit­ies will con­tin­ue to gen­er­ate new policies, for bet­ter or for worse.

An­drew Wain­er is a seni­or im­mig­ra­tion-policy ana­lyst at Bread for the World In­sti­tute. You can fol­low him on Twit­ter @An­drewWain­er. Audrey Sing­er is a seni­or fel­low in the Met­ro­pol­it­an Policy Pro­gram at the Brook­ings In­sti­tu­tion, where she fo­cuses on the new geo­graphy of im­mig­ra­tion and fed­er­al-, state-, and loc­al-policy re­sponses.


The Next Amer­ica wel­comes op-ed pieces that ex­plore the polit­ic­al, eco­nom­ic and so­cial im­pacts of the pro­found ra­cial and cul­tur­al changes fa­cing our na­tion, par­tic­u­larly rel­ev­ant to edu­ca­tion, eco­nomy, the work­force and health. Email Jan­ell Ross at jross@na­tion­al­journ­al.com. Please fol­low us on Twit­ter and Face­book.

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