States Take on Immigration

Fed up with an immigration overhaul stalling in Congress, state and local officials are taking the issue into their own hands.

Liberal cities and counties are rebelling against federal orders that call on them to detain immigrants for deportations. Swing-state lawmakers are approving in-state tuition for young undocumented immigrants. Democratic governors and mayors are brainstorming ways to allow immigrants — those here legally and those who are not — to work.

Until now, conservatives were fueling much of the immigration action at the state and local level. Arizona, for instance, famously shot to national attention in 2010 with a wide-ranging law that was then heralded as the toughest anti-illegal immigration statute in the nation.

But the more recent bursts of immigration activity nationwide are aimed at making the country more immigrant-friendly. And they give Democrats in Washington another opportunity to slam Republicans for failing to move immigration legislation.

“It should tell you just how far out of sync the Republican majority is,” Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) said of the recent flurry of pro-immigrant actions outside Washington. “It’s like, the country is moving.”

The most widespread trend is the rising number of local law enforcement agencies that have decided to buck federal immigration authorities on deportations — a movement that could have national implications.

In recent weeks, officials in Philadelphia and Baltimore and a slew of counties across Oregon, Colorado and Washington have all said they will no longer hold immigrants in jail who are suspected of being here illegally but would otherwise be released from behind bars.

The trend is a significant rebuke of Secure Communities, a program run by Immigration and Customs Enforcement that requires local law enforcement to hand over fingerprints to federal immigration officials of those who are booked into jails. If the fingerprint flags a potential undocumented immigrant, local jails are asked to detain him or her — even if the person is otherwise eligible to be released. Secure Communities began in 2008 under former President George W. Bush but has expanded under the Obama administration.

Now, there are clues that President Barack Obama is preparing to overhaul the controversial program. Homeland Security Secretary Jeh Johnson, who is heading a review of the Obama administration’s deportation policies, told “PBS NewsHour” last week that he was looking at a “fresh start” for Secure Communities.

The flood of changes at jails across the country has been spurred in part by an Oregon federal court decision in April, which found that such “detainers” could violate Fourth Amendment rights.

Officials who have chosen not to comply with detainer requests say law enforcement resources should be focused on people who pose a threat to public safety. For instance, the Baltimore City Detention Center will hold only immigrants who are facing charges or convictions on felonies, three or more misdemeanors or a “serious” misdemeanor, according to The Baltimore Sun. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, who is considering a run for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016, announced the change in policy.

The Secure Communities program has long concerned immigration advocates, who believe it could invite racial profiling and deter immigrants from reporting crimes to local police. Further irritating advocates, a Senate report last month alleges that a former acting DHS inspector general, Charles Edwards, altered some wording in a 2012 investigation of Secure Communities at the behest of Homeland Security officials — calling into question the agency watchdog’s independence.

Lawmakers on Capitol Hill, such as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, and many immigration advocates want the Obama administration to dump the program entirely.

“The distrust of the administration’s enforcement record on immigration extends to us as much as it extends to the right,” said Chris Newman, the legal director for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. “Immigrant-rights advocates are similarly distrustful.”

But the immigration movement nationwide extends beyond law and order.

Officials in Florida and Virginia — two critical swing states — recently approved lower tuition rates for undocumented immigrants who attend state schools. The Florida Legislature approved its measure earlier this month. Gov. Rick Scott, a Republican, supports the measure and is poised to sign it.

And in Virginia, Attorney General Mark Herring announced in April that thousands of young undocumented immigrants there would be eligible to pay reduced tuition rates. The move is aimed at beneficiaries of a 2012 Obama administration directive that effectively blocks deportations for young undocumented immigrants and gives them work permits.

The two states joined 19 others that offer in-state tuition — rates significantly lower than those of out-of-state students, which immigrants here illegally would otherwise have to pay — for undocumented immigrants at some, or all, of their public colleges and universities, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

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Revilla Law Firm, P.A., is a Miami-based immigration law practice that represents clients all areas of immigration law, concentrating in the area of deportation defense. For a free in-office consultation with one of our experienced attorneys, contact us at (305) 858-2323 or toll free (877) 854-2323.