Want to See Action on Immigration Reform? Look at States and Cities

A year ago this month, we were talking about the impending fiscal cliff, the debt ceiling, and the possibility of immigration reform. Sound familiar? This December has also included a budget deal avoiding another government shutdown and discussion about how to move forward with federal immigration reform.

In the absence of a new federal policy it may seem that not much has changed over the last 12 months, but the first half of 2013 saw progress on reforming our nation’s dysfunctional immigration system with the Senate passing a comprehensive bill and the House moving piecemeal bills out of committee.  

States and localities continued to step into the void with policy innovation while Congress let reform simmer. Unlike recent history, harsh anti-immigrant laws like Arizona’s SB1070 and housing ordinances in cities like Hazelton, PA and Farmer’s Branch, TX were no longer the rule. Already limited by the Supreme Court in 2012, they were gutted even further this fall when major portions of Alabama’s HB56, widely considered the most restrictive legislation on the books, were permanently blocked.

Throughout 2013, we saw what many consider a “pendulum swing” as states and municipalities, still waiting to see federal reform, raced to enact policies to attract and retain their immigrants. Here are some examples of innovative policies that were passed over the last year at the state or local level.


Perhaps the most notable state immigration policy to develop in 2013 was California’s TRUST Act, signed into law in October. Part of a larger suite of immigration-related legislation, the TRUST Act specifically limits local law enforcement’s from detaining immigrants not involved in a serious crime.  Similar to the “pendulum swing” away from the restrictive policies, policies like the TRUST Act can be seen as a reversal of local enforcement policies like 287(g) that California municipalities pursued.  Colorado and Connecticut passed their own TRUST acts; similar efforts were initiated in Washington, Florida, Massachusetts, and the District of Columbia;  and other states like Maryland and Illinois are considering TRUST Acts. These states understand that communities benefit from developing trust between immigrants and law enforcement so that when crimes are committed, immigrants are not fearful of coming forward. 

Extending driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants

By 2013, DACA recipients in most states were able to obtain driver’s licenses. Taking this expansion one step further, eight states and the District of Columbia approved legislation granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants. Illinois was the first to begin the application process, and most other states will begin issuing licenses in 2014. (In Oregon, however, the signed legislation will be put to referendum in 2014.) More states are considering extending driving privileges, including New York and Minnesota. By ensuring undocumented immigrants can pass a driving test and requiring them to purchase insurance, the roads are safer for all travelers.

In-state tuition to undocumented immigrants or DACA recipients

Numerous states extended in-state tuition to undocumented or DACA-recipient students this year. Some states, like Michigan, extended tuition equity to all undocumented students while others, like Ohio, extended these rights to a subset of undocumented students: DACA recipients. These states understand the benefit of investing in undocumented students who have come of age in our school system and with DACA are joining our workforce. 

Formal welcoming initiatives

Many states and localities made efforts to extend welcoming ordinances and policies. In March, New York launched an Office for New Americans. At the city level, emerging immigrant gateways like Atlanta and Austin joined the Welcoming America network, while longer-term members like Dayton began to see the fruits of their labor.

Without a doubt, the country still needs meaningful, federal immigration reform and it falls squarely on the shoulders of Congress. There are signs of movement from the House, including GOP Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s statement that immigration is a “top priority” for next year and re-positioning from Speaker John Boehner. But until then, states and metros are primed to lead the way.