Historically, America's immigration policy was left up to Washington. Like many other things in the U.S., that changed slightly in the last decade. In the absence of federal immigration reform, dozens of states have enacted hundreds of laws to make their jurisdictions either more or less welcoming to the nation’s 11 million unauthorized immigrants—and sometimes both.
A new report from the Rand Corporation, a nonprofit research organization, tallies states’ actions on immigration. Perhaps not surprisingly, it finds a nation pulling itself in different directions. Some states, including Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and Indiana, have put in place comprehensive laws that put restrictions on unauthorized immigrants within their borders. Others have gone in the opposite direction.
Though the specifics vary by state, restrictive laws passed between 2010 and 2012 require cops to determine criminal suspects’ immigration status; limit public benefits to those with legal documentation; and make it unlawful to harbor, transport, or shield unauthorized persons. These are places that aren’t waiting for Donald Trump to build a new wall on the southern border. They’re doing their best to deter undocumented aliens on their own.
On the other end of the spectrum are places that have been more accommodating to immigrants, particularly minors. California, Illinois, and Maryland have made unauthorized immigrants eligible for in-state tuition at public colleges and permitted them to get drivers licenses.
“Without the federal policy resolved on certain immigration problems, local actors are facing these realities in their municipalities and states,” says Adam Hunter, director of the Immigration and the States project at the Pew Charitable Trusts, who was not involved in the Rand report. It’s no longer just big cities or border states that are home to the foreign born, both documented and unauthorized. “Immigration now is broadly a 50-state story,” Hunter says.
Several states have mixed approaches, with some policies that accommodate unauthorized immigrants and others that are restrictive. Texas offers pre-natal care to the undocumented and has provided in-state tuition rates since 2001, but last year began requiring state employees to pass an employment eligibility check through the federal eVerify system. Florida likewise increased the use of eVerify in 2011 but expanded in-state tuition rates to undocumented students in 2014. Seven other states similarly mix tough elements with less restrictive policies.
Most states haven’t rigorously evaluated their immigration laws, said Lynn Karoly, senior economist at Rand and co-author of the report. The Rand study, funded with a grant from the MacArthur Foundation, was intended to show how the costs and benefits of states’ immigration actions could be calculated, tracing the effects on both the unauthorized and other parties such as employers or documented immigrants.
While some states’ immigration policies align with preconceived notions of red and blue states, "it doesn’t play out neatly,” Karoly said.
Examining the policies through an economic lens may explain some of the apparent contradictions. States may find that making college more accessible to undocumented students pays off. “Ultimately, for the economy, having a better educated population has long run benefits,” Karoly said. “Maybe there are other explanations besides politics,” she said.