New York Times (Op-ed)
By Karthick Ramakrishnan
September 12, 2016
The prospects for immigration reform at the state level look much brighter than they do in Washington. States like California and Connecticut have taken the lead in passing a variety of pro-integration initiatives. The results of these efforts can help other states.
For instance, Connecticut has passed laws allowing undocumented residents access to drivers' licenses and in-state tuition for public universities, and has limited state cooperation on deportations involving minor offenses. California has gone even further, allowing undocumented immigrants access to state financial aid, professional licenses and child health benefits. These measures have withstood constitutional scrutiny so far, and could easily be adopted by other states.
California and Connecticut have built public support for immigration reform by enlisting the help of agribusiness, chambers of commerce, religious institutions and police departments. For example, support from mayors and police chiefs in Connecticut helped the state pass its 2013 law limiting cooperation on immigration enforcement. And a coalition of agribusiness, religious organizations and insurance companies pushed for the passage of California’s driver's license law.
Of course, many of these efforts have been in the works for some time. The “California Package” of immigration reform, by far the most comprehensive set of state laws today, took more than 15 years to assemble, with advocates and legislators carefully choosing and sequencing bills that were sensitive to political and budgetary circumstances.
Moving too quickly can be a problem. The "New York is Home Act," a 2014 comprehensive bill tried to play catch-up with California and Connecticut, and was a spectacular failure. The bill included various measures to help undocumented immigrants such as drivers' licenses, state financial aid, health care benefits, equal protection under state laws and even more ambitious elements like voting rights. But the proposed changes were too big, and too fast, for even sympathetic legislators to consider signing on.
Recent setbacks in immigrant integration at the federal level should prompt a new round of integration efforts at the state level. If these state-level efforts succeed, they will not only serve as stop-gap measures for federal inaction, they will also help build policy momentum and political support for comprehensive immigration reform in the coming decade.
As states consider new laws, the contrasting lessons from New York and California could not be more clear: For state-level reforms to succeed, patient investments and piecemeal reforms win the race. Indeed, these are important lessons that even legislators in Washington should consider.
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