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A Fork in the Road for States and Immigrants

Proponents of anti-immigrant laws proclaimed that states could now adopt similar draconian measures after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down most of Arizona’s SB 1070 as unconstitutional, but upheld its racial profiling provision. But states should pause before pursuing such policies during the 2013 state legislative sessions.

Although the section of Arizona’s SB 1070 that forces police to demand “papers” of those they stop if an officer suspects an individual lacks authorization to live in this country has been allowed to stand for now, the Court’s decision made it clear that this provision may eventually be struck down on other constitutional grounds that were not before it. These challenges, like our own civil rights challenge to SB 1070, are already underway, and we hope to prevent this pernicious element of SB 1070 from ever going into effect.

States that choose to go down Arizona’s path will undoubtedly face the large price tag of litigation costs, subject their constituents to economic despair, and undermine public safety by creating a schism between law enforcement and immigrant communities who will no longer feel safe to report crimes as victims or witnesses.  Instead, state policymakers frustrated with the current state of federal immigration policy need simply to look to states with a wealth of experience in legislating for diverse populations. 

For years, historically immigrant-rich states have sought not to expel foreign born families and workers, but to ensure collective prosperity by enacting policies that make their states an easier place to live and work for all inhabitants. Policymakers standing at the fork of the immigration policy road should consider California, Illinois, and New York, and the steps they have taken to create states that are better educated, safer, and more productive places to live and work.

A dozen states have sought to reduce barriers to higher education by allowing all residents of a state, no matter their immigration status, pay the in-state tuition rate at public colleges. Though this policy was excoriated during the Republican primary season, the truth is that states have benefitted greatly from a policy that opens the doors to higher education for all residents.

This legislation is neither new, nor is it untested: California and Texas have had in-state tuition policies in place for nearly a decade, and both state laws survived legal challenges from anti-immigrant groups. Furthermore, it is growing in popularity: campaigns led by youth and educators across the country are promoting tuition equity for all residents in states ranging from Colorado to North Carolina. Judging from the experience of immigrant-rich states with such policies already in place, tuition equity should be considered smart policy for any legislator looking to improve higher education rates for all students.

States also have a major role to play in keeping all their residents safe and healthy. Smart, inclusive public health programs that improve access to preventative health care benefit rich and poor alike. States like Nebraska have recognized the importance of sound public health policy and offer prenatal care to all expectant mothers, regardless of immigration status. This policy makes sense on moral and policy levels: research has shown that mothers who have prenatal care give birth to healthier babies, which reduces health costs for these children in the future. As a result of this simple policy change, Nebraska can look forward to healthier and more productive children in its future.

California is once again at the vanguard, providing an alternative to Arizona by passing the TRUST Act.  If enacted, public safety would improve by ensuring that detention and deportation policies like the federal government’s Secure Communities do not impact California residents who aren’t a serious threat to our communities. The TRUST Act, which would establish a minimum standard for how local jurisdictions respond to voluntary federal requests to hold immigrants, is a first step toward re-establishing trust between immigrant communities and the law enforcement officers sworn to protect all Californians.

The worst element of SB 1070 may have survived this latest round of legal challenge. This doesn’t make it sound policy. State leaders now find themselves with a choice. They can go down the same path as Arizona and Alabama, subjecting their constituents to state-sanctioned racial profiling and lawsuits that follow, and become internationally known as places that are not welcome to foreign business or foreign born individuals. Alternatively, states can go down paths blazed by New York, Nebraska, and Tennessee and enact legislation that makes communities safer, improves public health, and opens doors to higher education.

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