With congressional and executive actions stalled, and given the current political climate with contentious immigration debates, the question that is often asked is if immigration reform will ever be possible. Given years of federal inaction in Washington, it appears that changes will, at least in the short run, have to occur at the State and local levels. Many immigration advocates have expressed concern that our country has been too fixated on an immigration reform strategy at the federal government level and that smaller steps may first need to be taken within a State-based approach. The hope is that increased momentum at the local level will translate into future political support for comprehensive immigration reform. Indeed, it is suggested that even if Hillary Clinton, who is decidedly pro-immigration reform, were to be elected President, the ongoing political battles at the national level may prevent the passing of wide-ranging legislation, beyond executive action programs.
Within the paradigm of a State-based approach, there appears to be three tiers of States that have already demonstrated an interest in and a commitment to implementing pro-integration measures. The State of California sits alone in the top tier as it has done the most to offer stronger protections and greater rights in integrating its immigrant population, providing benefits such as access to professional licenses, in-State tuition, financial aid, and child health-care benefits. In addition, an alliance of insurance companies, agricultural businesses, and religious institutions advocated for and helped facilitate the passage of the California’s driver’s license law, known as AB-60, which allows undocumented immigrants to apply for a driver’s license with the California Department of Motor Vehicles (DMV). The law expressly states that no one may discriminate against a holder of an AB-60 license, or use the driver’s license to attempt to question the holder’s citizenship or immigration status. California also passed a law extending eligibility for Medi-Cal benefits to children under 19 who do not have immigration status and thus do not qualify for benefits under the Federal Medicaid Program. Noteworthy are the facts that these measures have not been subjected to constitutional inquisition and have reportedly helped the State’s economic situation.
The second tier of States, which includes Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington, have shown evidence of providing several types of benefits to immigrants that are currently unavailable at the federal level. This includes providing health care to undocumented children and pregnant women. In addition, 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, choosing a productive versus punitive approach.
The final tier, which is comprised of New Jersey, New York, and Massachusetts, is known as the immigration-friendly group of States. While they have not yet passed any official pro-immigrant policies or measures, there is a strong push by business leaders, Democratic lawmakers, and advocates for immigration policy changes that are reportedly in the pipeline.
At the Shulman Law Group, an immigration law firm located in New Jersey, our immigration attorneys and staff are dedicated to advocating for the rights and protections of our immigration clients. It is our hope that New Jersey will follow the lead of States like California, Connecticut, Illinois, and Washington in implementing pro-integration measures and policies.