Our VoiceImmigration

Major Wins for Immigrant Rights Movement at State Level in 2013

Lauren Taylor • Dec 19, 2013

While many immigrant rights advocates focused on federal policy fights in 2013, others honed in on state campaigns – and often won. The wave of state legislative victories includes expanded protections for immigrant workers, driver’s licenses for immigrants without legal status, greater access to higher education, and limits on discriminatory enforcement policies. The National Immigrant Law Center published a report detailing these dramatic advances at the state level, and analyzed their  significance:

“This year’s pro-immigrant legislative and administrative victories reflect a shift in attitude across much of the country. Stepped-up civic participation by immigrant communities contributed to the political changes that made these policies possible. In places where earlier waves of anti-immigrant activism produced restrictive policies, residents increasingly find that the policies are unworkable legally, practically, and politically, which is motivating them to explore more inclusive alternatives.”

These pro-immigrant campaigns at the state-level put nativists on the defensive, and signaled a broader shift in national politics.

As noted in a recent ADL blog, after a decrease in 2012, there was a significant increase in state bills addressing immigration this past year. Bills addressing driver’s licenses were some of the most popular. In 2013, eight states, the District of Columbia and the commonwealth of Puerto Rico enacted laws providing driver’s licenses or driving privilege cards for residents who cannot prove their legal presence. Despite the efforts of many campaigns, all of the new license bills provide distinct or marked licenses. Though questions remain about the impact of marked licenses on immigration enforcement and racial profiling, many believe that access to licenses will stem the tide of immigrants thrown into deportation proceedings for minor traffic violations, or “Driving While Brown.”

Tuition equity policies, long championed by immigrant youth movements, also made significant progress this year. Laws passed in Colorado and Oregon expanded access to higher education by providing in-state tuition for undocumented immigrants who meet certain residency and secondary education requirements. Similar advances were made in Minnesota and Hawaii when the state board of regents extended in-state tuition to undocumented students. DACA grantees, immigrants granted temporary relief from deportation, also fought for access to in-state tuition and are making headway. Other policy changes expanded access to financial aid, because even in-state rates are often out of reach. These policy changes brought the total number of states with tuition equity policies to 18.

Other state laws expanded legal protections for immigrant workers. California and Hawaii passed laws creating a Domestic Workers’ Bill of Rights. Domestic workers have historically been excluded from the National Labor Relations Act and the basic protections and rights included therein. Immigrant women make up a disproportionate share of domestic workers, and their exclusion from basic protections has contributed to their vulnerability and exploitation at work. These landmark victories at the state level, following New York’s lead, are the product of years of movement building by immigrant women, domestic workers, and their allies.

Finally, many state and local governments passed legislation limiting collaboration between local law enforcement officials and ICE, or Immigration and Customs Enforcement. In the spring, Colorado passed a version of the TRUST act, repealing an anti-immigrant law widely seen as a predecessor to Arizona’s notorious SB 1070. At the state level, there is growing recognition that anti-immigrant laws cause harm to all residents, including immigrants.

At the state level, the anti-immigrant movement has largely been on the defensive this year, defending previously enacted anti-immigrant laws and policies, and attempting to block or repeal laws that expand immigrant rights. In Oregon, nativists collected enough signatures to put driver’s licenses on the ballot in 2014. This challenge means the law must be approved by a direct popular vote before it can go into effect. Despite this largely defensive posture, the anti-immigrant movement did go on the attack in some states. The Anti-Defamation League aptly summarized:

“Though the anti-immigrant movement is certainly playing defense in many states, this does not mean that this is the case in every state. In 2012, FAIR hired staff to fill two newly created positions in the organization: a State and Local Associate as well as a State and Local Director. Both are tasked with helping state legislators draft anti-immigrant legislation. In Wisconsin, a state lawmaker recently introduced a bill to make English the official language of the state. There also remains the strong possibility of a state with a traditionally large percentage of conservative voters approving an anti-immigrant ballot measure. In 2012, Montana voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot measure denying state-funded services for undocumented immigrants.”

It’s clear that the national anti-immigrant movement has not given up on state fights, and is investing more time and funds in state-level organizing. More broadly, the anti-Muslim tendency within the anti-immigrant movement went on the attack this year in Oklahoma and North Carolina, passing two bills that ban the practice of foreign law.

The landscape has changed significantly, but the fight is far from over. New questions and possibilities have opened up, and unlikely allies have appeared. As organizers, community members, and advocates continue to push for better laws and better wages, it is up to the rest of us to hold the line, and defend these hard-won victories against organized xenophobia and nativism.

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